The Devil She Knows: New Excerpt

The Devil She Knows by Bill Loehfelm
The Devil She Knows by Bill Loehfelm
Life isn’t panning out for Maureen Coughlin. At twenty-nine, the tough-skinned Staten Island native’s only excitement comes from . . . well, not much. A fresh pack of American Spirits, maybe, or a discreet dash of coke before work. If something doesn’t change soon, she’ll end up a “lifer” at the Narrows, the faux-swank bar where she works one long night after another. But just like the island, the Narrows has its seamy side.

After work one night, Maureen walks in on a tryst between her co-worker Dennis and Frank Sebastian, a silver-haired politico. When Sebastian demands her silence, Maureen is more than happy to forget what she’s seen—until Dennis turns up dead on the train tracks the next morning. The murder sends Maureen careening out of her stultifying routine and into fast-deepening trouble. Soon she’s on the run through the seedy underbelly of the borough, desperate to stop Sebastian before Dennis’s fate becomes her own.

 

Chapter 1

Blood. Maureen sniffed again at the dark smears on her fingertips. Pungent sweetness and a hint of iron. Definitely blood. Not the answer she’d hoped for, but the fresh stains couldn’t be anything else. She stud­ied the spray pattern of red dots peppering the outside of her windowsill. That’s the effect of sharp teeth, she thought, punching holes through skin. She hadn’t seen or heard anything, a surprise since she’d left the kitchen only for a few moments to answer the phone. Nothing left of the body but what looked like sticky feathers. The culprit sat in plain sight. These attacks had to stop.

“You’re killing me!” she shouted out the window, down at the fire es­cape landing a floor below her kitchen. Narrow yellow eyes stared back at her, fearless and devoid of mercy or empathy. “You’re absolutely killing me, you fuzzy little prick.” Maureen put the phone back to her ear, turn­ing away from the window. “And you are too,” she said to her caller. “You know that, don’t you, Dennis? You’re gonna be the death of me.”

“You better not call me fuzzy,” Dennis said.

“I wouldn’t know about that.” Maureen headed to the kitchen counter. “And I don’t wanna know.” She grabbed a half-full beer bottle and carried it back to the window. “All I know is I worked the past five nights.”

Reaching out the window, she emptied the beer bottle over the skinny calico on the fire escape landing. With one twitch of its tail, the cat launched onto the railing and away from the beer shower. The cat looked down at the beer, up at Maureen, and then sailed without a sound from the railing to the leafless bough of a nearby tree. A dozen sparrows hit the air, chirping in panic and warning. “Sorry.”

“C’mon, Maureen,” Dennis said, teetering on the edge of whining. “I’m really stuck here. Help me out.”

Maureen sat at the kitchen table, jamming the phone between her ear and shoulder, crossing her ankles. “You’re totally murdering me. One more night might do me in, for real.”

She pulled a cigarette from the pack on the table and lit it, listening to the bar manager, her boss, apologize and then beg some more.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with Tanya,” Maureen said, “in three words:

O. Pee. Ates. She’s either too high or too sick from getting high to work. Don’t believe that bullshit about her sinuses, please . . . Yeah, she told me she was done with it, too, but you know better. We both do.” Mau­reen leaned forward, pressing her forehead into her free hand. “Okay, I’ll come in, but not as a favor to you. I need the money. This is for me. Not for Tanya, not for you.”

She disconnected and tossed the phone on the table. Well, so much for the gym. Good thing she had maxed out her credit card renewing the membership yesterday.

Maureen got up from the table and went back to the window. Lean­ing out from the waist up, she grabbed the bird feeder and pulled it in­side. She’d have to move it again. Taking the feeder down meant letting the cat win, and Maureen hated that, but it wasn’t fair to make the neigh­borhood birds pay the tab for her pride. Eliminating the cat, which Mau­reen knew damn well she couldn’t stomach, was the only other option. Besides, punishing the cat for doing what it was built to do wasn’t fair, either. I’m the person, she thought. It’s my job to be smarter, to find the high road. She was sure a situation existed where cats could be cats and birds could be birds and everyone could go about their business in peace. She just had to find it. She set the feeder on the counter, silently promising to get it back outside in a  cat-proof location as soon as possi­ble. She couldn’t let the situation linger; the birds needed her. Winter was coming.

On her way to the bedroom, she paused at the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. For a full five seconds she let her eyes rest on the pic­ture above the black and white grid of dates. The Outer Banks, at sunset. A vast pink and orange sky floated over the sea like a clean sheet fl oating over a bed. Silhouettes of seagulls hovered over purple water fl ecked with gold. What island was in that photo? Not this island, she thought, that’s for sure. It’s not cold, gray,  late-November Staten Island. Well then, boohoo for you.

Her eyes dropped from the picture and she found the date. Who was playing the bar tonight? Full House. Okay. At least there’s a decent band, a great band, really, on the schedule.  Old-school R & B. Large crowd, older crowd. Liquor drinkers, top shelf. That meant good money, possibly great. All she had to do was get there to make it. She walked into the bed­room where, arms crossed, she surveyed the contents of her closet. Two days ago she’d organized it. Work clothes, hanger after hanger of black, on the left. Real life clothes on the right, a few skirts, tops, dresses. Twice as much black as color, a depressingly accurate portrait of her life.

She slid her hands in among the blacks and examined her options, listing her selection criteria in her head. One week before rent. Her maxed-out Visa. And the electric bill was due yesterday. She pulled out a thin sweater and held it up. Tight and nearly see-through. Long sleeves but cut low at the neck and high at the midriff. With her free hand, she pinched the collar of her T-shirt and peered down. Already wearing the black bra. Sweater’s a go; she put it on. Now where was I?

Business, she thought, this is business. I need to make three hundred tonight. She tossed a brushed leather skirt, very short, extremely short, onto the bed. Let them think she looked like a slut. Probably did already anyway. She made four hundred dollars in that outfit last time she wore it. Can’t hurt to leave some room for error. Service would be surly to­night; she could tell already.

Maureen stuffed the skirt, plus black leather flats, black stockings, and her apron into her knapsack. She slipped out of her running shorts and into a pair of jeans. She paused for a quick look in the mirror. Her nose glowed red and raw around the false emerald stud she’d had punched through it a week ago. It was cute, it really was. A good birthday present, no matter what her mother said. “A nose ring? I gave you money for some­thing nice. For chrissakes, Maureen, you’re freakin’ twenty-nine years old. Be an adult. You’re almost thirty.”

Yeah, I’m an adult, Maureen thought, leaning closer to the mirror, and I bought jewelry for my birthday. And it looks good. So leave me alone about it. If only it would heal up already. Really oughta put some powder over that red. Then again, why bother? The dim lights of the bar hid a multitude of sins, red noses being the least of them. Hopefully, the black circles under her eyes would disappear as well. Christ, she was exhausted. Her nose twitched. Something smelled stale, like an old book left in the back corner of the attic. Was it the sweater? Her? She yanked open her bureau drawer and dug through the socks and bras. One thing the bar wouldn’t do was make her smell better.

She pulled out a fistful of glass vials, her collection of scented oils, tossing them on top of the bureau. Lavender, patchouli, some junk she’d borrowed from Tanya called Wind Spirit that turned Tanya into a Turk­ish princess but had left Maureen smelling like a lamb kebab. Real per­fume was out of her price range, but the oils came cheap from the Rasta shop over by work. Some of the vials had lost their labels so she twisted off the caps, smell-testing them. Nothing caught her fancy until she un­capped a bottle a quarter full of white powder. God, how long had that been in there? She couldn’t even remember who had sold it to her. She recapped the bottle but didn’t screw it shut, pausing instead to stare again at her boxer’s eyes. Fuck it.

Maureen made a fist and tapped out a dash, not even a dash, really, of coke onto her knuckle. To get her to work with a bounce in her step, so she didn’t show up snapping and snarling at everyone, ruining her night before it even got started. She lowered her nose to her knuckle and sucked in the coke, coming up blinking at the mirror. Ouch. Bit of a kick to it. Bitter fluid gathered at the back of her throat and she swal­lowed it down, rubbing her knuckle over her upper gums. All right then. Time to get moving. She swept the bottles back into the drawer.

She dug the gym membership card from her discarded running shorts and tucked it tight behind her maxed-out Visa in a pocket of her wallet. No sense losing it. Replacements cost thirty-five bucks, and during the late nights and early mornings when Maureen figured she’d most often be go­ing, the membership card was the only way into the 24-hour gym. And she would go. She’d promised herself that, too. She would go.

She dropped her arms in front of her, made fists, and then turned her arms until clean-cut triceps surfaced and pushed up against her hard shoulders. Her arms felt strong and looked it. The clinging sweater made that obvious. She knew her legs were in good shape too, even if they did wake her up three nights a week with their complaining. She peeked down her shirt again; now, if only push-ups, running the floor, and hump­ing drink trays did something for those. And her belly, flat enough for the short sweater but getting soft. Maybe she’d stop going to the diner with Tanya after closing. Start keeping real food in the house. What good could waffles and ice cream be doing her anyway, at four in the morn­ing? Wouldn’t it be better, she thought, sniffling, the coke making her nose run, to wind down on the treadmill or the elliptical? Who in their right mind enjoyed trading a crowded, noisy, smelly bar full of demand­ing drunks for a packed and stinky diner full of the same  jerk-offs? Not relaxing, even if you’re not working. But the empty gym? Soundless ex­cept for the hum of the air conditioner and the thump of her sneakers on the treadmill? That could be heaven. That could put a girl in the right mind to sleep well. But that was all for another time. Tonight, she had to work.

Maureen tightened her ponytail, slung her bag over her shoulder, and grabbed her purse off the kitchen table. Makeup could wait till she got to work. By the door, she pulled on her battered wool peacoat and stuffed her purse into her knapsack. She double-locked her apartment and barreled down the stairs.

Outside, a frigid gust slammed the storm door against the side of the building. The door bounced off the wall and hit her, knocking the keys from her hand. She bent to pick them up, heard a pop in one knee. Not already. Come on. Happy hour hasn’t even started yet. The wind kicked up again and a chill shook her. Really oughta call a cab. No, what you really should do, she thought, is hang on to that ten bucks and hustle your ass to the bus stop. She bounded down the steps, across the side­walk, and into the street.

She ducked her head and quickened her pace when Paul called her name, stepping out from behind the propped-up hood of his long-dormant Chevy Nova. It was so irritating, the way Paul drew out the e’s at the end of Maureen, following that up with a bad Curly the Stooge impression. Hey, Mo, ny-uck, ny-uck. Nobody ever called her Mo, ever. Not twice, anyway. How thick could a guy be? What’s it tell you when you call a girl’s name every day and she never once stops and answers? Give it up, that’s the message. But Paul wasn’t hearing it. That’s what I get, Maureen thought, for asking the guy for one favor. Should’ve put the ceiling fan in myself. She should’ve known it’d be like this when he wouldn’t take the twenty she offered and asked for a date instead. When he said call me after she shot him down. She thought leaving a six-pack on his porch—no note, no phone number, nothing to give him the wrong idea—made it clear that she wasn’t into owing favors. But Paul got the wrong ideas all on his own, no help needed. Because he was her landlord’s kid, Paul thought that got him some leverage, some play. He called her name again. Maureen ignored him.

Turning the corner onto Richmond Terrace, Paul safely two blocks behind, Maureen slowed her pace. She pulled her purse from her knap­sack, searched for her cigarettes. Not in there. She stopped in the street, digging through her knapsack, though she knew they weren’t in there either. She knew where they were. She could picture them in her mind, sitting on her kitchen table, the nearly full pack of American Spirits. She started walking again, once more digging in her purse. I must’ve grabbed them when I grabbed my keys. No dice. Now she’d have to bum at work, be one of those people. Like Tanya, who was always bumming from her, telling Maureen she’d quit. “Yeah, you quit,” Maureen had finally said one night. “You quit buying your own cigarettes.”

No bumming, Maureen thought. Not me. I’ll stop at the deli on the way to the bar. She opened her wallet. After bus fare, she’d have three dollars left over. Okay, after her first couple of tables, she’d run over. Won’t take ten minutes. Or she could borrow a couple bucks when she got there. Or not. Maybe this is a sign, she thought. A sign she should quit. Yeah, because right before a shift is a great time to quit smoking.

When the bus came, Maureen paid her fare and plopped down into the seat behind the driver. She shivered, crossed her legs, and folded her arms over her bag, clutching it to her chest. No heat. A frail old lady wrapped in a tattered overcoat that had shed its buttons, groceries spill­ing from the plastic shopping bags at her feet, smiled when they made eye contact. Maureen closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the cold glass. Jimmy would probably be there tonight; he almost always came out for Full House. Maybe she could catch him before he left this time, invite him back for a drink at last call, when there’d be time and quiet for a decent conversation. As long as he didn’t have that banshee Rose on his arm.

God, Jimmy hardly looked old enough to be out of high school, never mind teaching it. But he was cute. She could imagine the teenage girls primping in the bathroom mirror before his class, mooning over him while he lectured. She’d have had a crush on him if he’d been her teacher. She’d almost been dumb enough to tell him that, last time they’d talked. Yeah, she’d make sure he came back to see her. Maybe the skirt would help. She wasn’t sure what she’d say exactly; she didn’t want to look too eager. Hadn’t he said  parent-teacher conferences were com­ing up? She could ask about that. He’d have some hilarious stories. Good. She was looking forward to really laughing after a long night of pretend­ing. Unless he asked about her classes at Richmond College. God, could she tell him she’d dropped out? Admitting she was, at twenty-nine, still working on her undergrad had been embarrassing enough.

And what if she was so exhausted after the shift she couldn’t keep her eyes open, never mind talk to anyone? Should’ve brought the coke. Yeah, like there wouldn’t be any at the bar. When the bus hit a pothole, banging her head on the glass, Maureen sat up, startled. The old woman giggled at her. Yeah, cocaine, Maureen thought, the magic elixir for intelligent conversation at 4 a.m.

Maureen watched the approaching road over the bus driver’s shoul­der. The streetlights flickered, the day nearly over. The last thing I need is less daylight, she thought. Where had the autumn gone? Not where she had hoped, that was for sure. No long afternoons on campus at Rich­mond, paperback open on her knee instead of closed and collecting dust on her coffee table. This early sunset wouldn’t be so depressing, she thought, if I were on campus trying to read one more chapter of Conrad before the light faded. Long afternoons on campus filled with reading and deep conversation. Ideas. That had been the plan.

Instead she’d struggled through eight weeks of bleary, headachy morn­ings spent rushing to early a.m. pre-req classes wearing her work clothes. She thought of her fresh-scrubbed, fashion-labeled classmates staring at her as she stumbled to her seat fifteen minutes late, pen in her teeth and used textbooks tumbling from her arms, breaking the pained silence of the interrupted lecture. She knew her classmates saw her as a warning, a symbol of what awaited them should they not study hard and come to class.

She’d dropped those two morning classes, Psych II and History of the American Revolution, by the end of September. Shame about Ameri­can history, Mr. Curran was cute and a great teacher. She’d hung on to Shakespeare’s Tragedies until the end of October. That met at two in the afternoon, though she always attended that one in her work clothes too, leaving early every third class to get to work on time. She felt more com­fortable in an upper-level English class, pretending that wearing black every day marked her as arty and not overworked.

Dr. Travis wore black most of the time too. It was the first thing he’d pointed out they had in common. More things in common came up over rainy afternoon coffee on campus, even more over late-night drinks across the island.

At his Jersey Shore beach house, he recited poetry to her in bed, dense and ornate verse he claimed as his own life’s work, a tragic retelling of “the fall of men and the dawn of time” that Maureen recognized almost immediately as John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I actually finished that se­mester, she wanted to tell Travis, having stuck with that class mostly because of that poem, charmed as she was by Milton’s portrayal of a defiant and driven Lucifer. But she suppressed the urge to call out Travis as a phony and instead tried to enjoy his busy hands at work under the sheets.

It’s someone reading you poetry in bed, she told herself, and almost making you come as he does it. A man who can multitask. Be happy.

Maureen hadn’t harbored any unrealistic hopes for either a future or a genuine  gut-busting orgasm with Travis, but she figured they’d wear a hole in the carpet in front of the beach house fireplace pretending there was reason to believe in both. But Mrs. Dr. Travis, mother of their three sons, matron of the home the Travises shared on Todt Hill, had other plans. Mrs. Dr. Travis of the short black hair had found long reddish hairs in that carpet by the fireplace, and that was that.

In his office, after getting busted by his wife, weeping and moaning like a poor version of a character from the tragedies he taught, Travis offered Maureen an A and the rest of the semester off if she promised not to bring sexual harassment charges over getting dumped. She laughed at him. Like the last time this happened? she’d wanted to ask him. Then she laughed at herself. She hadn’t considered herself his Juliet, and Travis was no fucking Romeo, but she had imagined herself an exception, a powerful if not intoxicating temptation. Instead, she felt revealed as only this semester’s diversion, not significant enough to be tragic or comic.

When Travis had stood and reached out to embrace her across the desk, the glint of once for old times’ sake in his eyes, Maureen walked out of the office. That afternoon she dropped the Shakespeare class, though she lost half the tuition she’d paid for it. She set her sights on a fresh start in the spring and that night posted a sign in the waitress station at work, offering to pick up extra shifts.

On the bus now, on the way to one of those extra shifts, she sat slumped, rocking her molars together and thinking of Jimmy’s Rose and Mrs. Dr. Travis. Maybe Jimmy wasn’t such a hot idea. Seen that movie already. It always ends the same. If she stayed out of trouble with Jimmy, maybe the money she lost on the Shakespeare class would end up being worth something after all.

Maureen rubbed her eyes with her fingertips and unzipped her bag. She picked through her purse, searching for her compact, needing some powder for the outside of her nose. She found the compact and popped it open. Oh, shit, she thought, staring down at her empty pack of birth control pills. When did this happen? When had she taken the last one, yesterday? The day before? She clicked the pack closed and dropped it back in her bag. No problem. Monday I’ll go to Planned Parenthood and get more. Did this mean she’d have to go off and go on again? Start all over? There wasn’t much point. Considering her total lack of pros­pects, she certainly wasn’t in any danger.

But still, you hate to break the cycle.

She repacked her things and stood, grabbing tight to the cold metal pole beside the bus driver. The bus settled to the curb at her Bay Street stop with a groan like it was dying, like its own legs were all but worn out.

 

Chapter 2

By nine, Maureen, dressed in her four-hundred-dollar outfit, was perched on a bar stool, waiting for the crowd, a second shot of Bushmills and thirty-nine American Spirits next to her elbow on the bar. Good thing I rushed to be here, she thought.

Upon Maureen’s arrival, grateful she’d picked up the shift, Dennis had put up the money for her two packs of smokes—right after he’d told Maureen that her floor partner wasn’t coming in either. Vic, the owner, had picked her to work a party for some local politico at the reception hall he ran upstairs. Maureen feigned upset over the situation and com­plained again about Vic never throwing her a catering gig, causing Den­nis to plead powerlessness, exactly the reaction Maureen had expected. She bitched to Dennis, something all the girls did, only because he took it so well. He got the shit so the bartenders and the customers didn’t. In reality, flying solo on the floor was a lucky break. She’d run like a dog but she’d double her money.

She’d already had a few easy early tables. Happy hour had been steady. A little bleed had trickled down from upstairs,  early-arriving party guests—high rollers, it looked like—and that had helped. She thumbed through the roll of cash in her apron, guessing she’d already neared the hundred-dollar mark. A good start to the evening. People wouldn’t start showing up in real numbers for another hour. The floor would fill by eleven. The band was set up, sound-checked, and huddled over a table in front of the stage, working out the set list. They’d spend the next hour adjusting the levels of their body chemistry before the first set at ten.

Most of the regulars, friends of Vic’s, were already in place, as if the bar were a stage and each man had his unchanging mark. Big fans of Maureen’s they were, and a steady stream of cash. They stood at the bar, leaning their arms across the backs of vacant stools, sleeves rolled up over hairy forearms, bellies pouting over their Italian leather belts, their pricey bourbons and top-shelf vodkas clutched in fat hands adorned with rings. Throughout the night they’d grab her elbow, maybe let a hand slide to her hip, while yelling simple requests over the band and into her ear: Got matches? Bring that lady over there a drink on me? She wearing a wedding ring? Excuses, really, these questions, to slip her some cash, the money a warm-up to whatever offers came later in the night: next week­end in the Hamptons, a limo and dinner, a Soho party full of heroin-chic models and D-list actors.

But holding court over the goodfella parade tonight was a tall wide-shouldered man Maureen didn’t know. His gray suit jacket strained at its buttons, his silver tie bunched at his collar as he opened his arms wide, telling some tale that enraptured his audience. Maureen didn’t know the man, couldn’t hear his story, but she recognized the collective look on the faces of his admirers: greed. Bastards may as well have had drool running down their chins. Mr. Silver had something, or the keys to some­thing, that they wanted. That was obvious.

Silver finished his story and someone else took the floor, adding on, Maureen was sure, his own complements to the previous tale. Mr. Silver settled half his weight onto his bar stool. Clutching a cocktail tight in his left hand, he stroked the short hairs of his silver goatee with the fingers of his right as he listened. His mouth strained to hold a grin. Misery, Maureen thought. Pained boredom. That’s what that grin is hiding. Mr. Silver needed something in return and was at that very moment putting a down payment on whatever it was. Maureen felt a pang of empathy. I know the feeling, she thought. Whatever it was that had Mr. Silver fak­ing it that hard, Maureen hoped it was worth it. And then it clicked in her head. Silver had to be the VIP upstairs.

As if he’d heard her good wishes, Silver turned his head ever so slightly her way, his fixed grin never moving. It was hard to tell in the dim light of the bar, but Maureen thought she saw him wink at her after a mo­ment of eye contact. With the wink, the empathy in her died. Like a blush her professional armor rose to the surface of her skin. But of course. We all want something. Isn’t that why we’re here? Maureen raised her glass and polished off her whiskey, turning on her stool and letting her hair fall in a curtain between her profile and Mr. Silver. An authoritative kiss-off, she thought, without being gruesomely rude. After all, she might end up waiting on him later. She couldn’t name the designer, but she knew an expensive suit when she saw one. No sense totally blowing a potential big tip.

Tapping her foot on the rung of the bar stool, she considered getting one more shot. Better not. Two was the limit before a shift, coke buzz or not. Enough to get her legs through the night and no more. She stared into her empty glass. She jumped when a deep voice rumbled above her.

“Thought I might see you at the gym today.”

Maureen swiveled in her seat, craning her neck to look up into the face of Clarence, the Narrows’s  muscle-bound,  six-eight,  black-as-oil bouncer. “Gimme a break, C. I joined yesterday.”

“I know, I signed you up,” Clarence said. “You told me you wanted to get right to it. I’m just sayin’. You could’ve hit it yesterday, too.”

With one enormous hand, Clarence smoothed his pink silk tie against his clamshell shirt. Her neck already aching from her head’s steep angle, Maureen wondered as she often did what life was like from that height. Clarence was so large he had to have his shirts tailor-made. Maureen could wear one of those shirts as a dress, and the hem would drag on the fl oor.

“Like I told you,” Maureen said, “I would have worked out, but I had to come here.”

“That’s two opportunities lost to poor planning.” Clarence smiled. “Two days of pain that could be behind you already.” He set one hand on the bar and leaned down to Maureen, his brown eyes the size of cof­fee saucers. “Seriously, you need to come in. I told you I’ll train you myself.”

Maureen tilted her head from side to side, working the kink from her neck. “Weights aren’t for me. I wanna hit the treadmill and run, you know? Maybe hang from the  chin-up bar and get taller.”

“Nah, running ain’t enough.” Clarence rose to his full height, rested his chin in his palm. Sensing the appraisal in his eyes, Maureen fluffed her hair and lit up her best fake smile. Clarence grinned. “We’re gonna take care of you, little girl. Buff you right up. You got good bones, a good frame for hanging muscle on. And I can teach you some things for your back and your legs, get rid of that slouch.” He raised his forefinger from his chin, tipped it toward her. “And you’re not afraid of hard work, I know that. But I can’t get you in there; you gotta make the effort.”

“Don’t I know it,” Maureen said, laughing.

Clarence tilted his head, directing Maureen’s attention back to Mr. Silver. “Like that dude over there? Every single morning he’s in there solo, banging it out. Every. Morning. Crack of dawn.”

“That’s a little psycho,” Maureen said. “Don’tcha think?”

“That’s commitment.”

“I’m not up for all that,” Maureen said. “I don’t have that kind of stamina.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Clarence said. “You’re a powerhouse. We both know it.” He made a fist, held it up. “You’re just compact. Like dyna­mite.”

Maureen smiled, lowering her eyes. She liked the way Clarence talked to her, and his training offer flattered her. Half the island’s body­builders wanted to train with him, and here he was carving out time for little ol’ her. She knew there was nothing untoward about his offer; Clar­ence worshipped his wife, a caramel-colored fireplug not much bigger than Maureen. Maybe Clarence was right, she thought. Running wasn’t enough anymore. Might feel good, Maureen thought, to work toward something other than the rent.

“Hey, I’m all about the gym,” she said. “It’s where I was headed to­night when Dennis called. Blame him.”

“Blame me for what?” Dennis asked, stepping up beside them.

Clarence raised his arm, curling his fist toward his shoulder. A bowl­ing ball twitched in his sleeve. “Pain.” He chuckled and walked away, heading back to his post beside the door.

“That dude,” Dennis said, shaking his head. “He on you about the gym?”

“I joined yesterday.”

“Good for you.” Dennis slid a cigarette out of Maureen’s pack on the bar. He held the cigarette in front of his nose. “Be careful, he’ll be on you about these next.” Dennis tucked his stolen smoke behind his ear, where Maureen watched it disappear into his thick black curls. “If we all listened to Clarence,” Dennis said, “we’d have the healthiest staff on Bay Street.”

Maureen touched her thin bangs. Dennis wasn’t much to look at, a plain face with tiny eyes and no chin, and his shirts hung on him like he had a cheap hanger for shoulders, but the girls at the Narrows loved his dark, shimmering, curly hair. Tanya touched it every chance she got. That Dennis never did anything to it but wash it only heightened the communal envy.

“You best be careful,” Maureen said. “The staff gets in shape, we might feel good about ourselves and want to make something out of our lives instead of working here. Then where would you be?”

“Here with the lifers like you. I’m not worried. Clarence can bench-press a Cadillac, and he’s here five nights a week. Cash in hand is hard to give up.”

Maureen picked up her cigarette pack, closed the top, and tossed it back on the bar. Lifer, my ass, she thought. This spring everything is gonna change: school, the gym. Hell, I may get crazy and find a decent, sane, single boyfriend. I might go out and get a life. Stop living for this goddamn bar.

Dennis cracked his knuckles. Maureen hoped he wouldn’t do his neck, which was usually what came next. The pop-pop-pop of his bones always made her queasy. This time Dennis rolled his wrists and thank­fully stopped there. He looked around the bar. “Decent start tonight.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Maureen said. She nodded toward the band. “These guys bring a good crowd.”

“They always bring him in, too,” Dennis said. “The teacher.” He leaned into her. “Or is it you he comes to see?”

“Jimmy and his wife come for the band. I work plenty of other nights. He never comes in for those.” She shrugged. “He’s taken, anyway.”

“Like that’s stopped you before.”

“I don’t do that shit anymore.”

Dennis tapped the tip of his nose. “Careful, other shit you don’t do anymore manages to linger.”

Maureen touched her new nose ring, though she knew Dennis re­ferred to the coke. She considered reminding him that he’d called her in to work over Tanya’s pill habit. Ol’ reliable Maureen. Like a faithful dog or a strong horse. Like death and bills and taxes and  middle-aged men who hated waiting for another round. Speaking of, she thought.

“Who’s the suit?” she asked. “The white-haired guy. He seems pretty popular.”

“That’s it,” Dennis said, “change the subject. Had your fill of skinny academics? Going more for the beefcake? He is your type; he’s married.”

“Christ, one mistake and I never live it down. You better hope I never find any skeletons in your closet.”

“No one, ever,” Dennis said, “has made just one mistake.”

“Okay, Confucius.” Maureen tilted her chin at Mr. Silver. “Every goombah in the room is kissing his ring. I’m just asking.” She frowned.

“I feel like I know the face, but I can’t place it.”

“You read the papers?”

“Almost never,” Maureen said. “No time.”

“Watch TV?”

“Same as above.”

“That’s Frank Sebastian,” Dennis said.

“Never heard of him.”

“He’s the guest of honor upstairs.  Fund-raiser. He’s a friend of Vic’s. He’s running for state senator. South Shore district.”

Maureen laughed. “Wow. State Senate. I had no idea that the road to political fame and fortune ran through the Narrows. When did Vic get so hooked up?”

“He and Vic go back,” Dennis said. “They’ve known each other since before Vic took over the bar, ten, twelve years ago. Sebastian, he does the security up and down Bay Street. He’s got every parking lot, from end to end.”

“He’s a  rent-a-cop? He doesn’t look it.”

“He owns the company,” Dennis said, “that provides  rent-a-cops to most everywhere on the island that uses them.”

Maureen narrowed her eyes, trying to get a read on Sebastian. Some­thing about him wasn’t right or, more to the point, not enough about him was wrong. The cut of his gray suit, his sharp jawline and high cheekbones: he was too cleanly drawn, too intentional, like a CGI special effect stepped down from a film screen. She thought, if she stared at him long enough, his whole body would ripple like a glitch in a hologram.

“He’s getting a hell of a head start,” she said. “Campaign-wise. Or he’s really late. It’s the end of November.”

“Special election,” Dennis said, “in April. He’s running for Valario’s seat. The guy who got caught with the suicidal stripper out in Flushing? Twenty-years-married Mr. Family Values? Heard of him?”

“Nope,” Maureen said. She ran her eyes over the room. “But I can spit on a dozen just like him from here.” She glanced over at Sebastian. “How’s he doing? He gonna win?”

“Most likely,” Dennis said. “He’s way ahead. Running away with it, practically.”

“He’s such a big shot, then what’s he doing down here schmoozing the league of ordinary gentlemen? The fat wallets are upstairs.”

“I know these things?” Dennis asked with a shrug. “The money down here spends the same as everyone else’s, far as I know. Maybe he’s wait­ing to make an entrance upstairs. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ and that shit. Though he probably knows a few of these guys from up on the Hill.”

“He lives on the Hill?”

“I don’t know where he lives,” Dennis said. “But remember that rash of robberies on Todt Hill a couple of years ago? All those rich people getting knocked off ? It was big news.”

“If you say so.”

“You need to get out more.”

“I get out almost every night,” Maureen said. “But it’s always to come here.”

“Anyway,” Dennis said, “half these meatheads, their houses were robbed. Got so bad they eventually hired a private patrol. Heavily armed. Soon as that happened, the robberies stopped.”

“Let me guess,” Maureen said. “Sebastian’s security firm.”

“For a while, rumors went around that had him contracting the rob­beries to create the security work. But nobody could prove it. I don’t know how hard people tried.”

“Savvy,” Maureen said.

“So you’re okay with criminality as a business strategy?”

“Only in my politicians.” She waited for Dennis to laugh. He didn’t. “Listen, I’m just saying, if he’s slick enough to pull it off, good for him. Maybe I’ll vote for him. You should, too. Think about it. The guy gets shit done.”

Dennis gave her a long, humorless stare. It lasted almost a full min­ute before a grin curled the corners of his mouth. “All I know is Vic’s comping the upstairs for him. I’m putting up a full sit-down with an open bar, on the arm.” He shook his head. “And then Vic cries at me that we’re bleeding cash. And I got one girl on the floor for a Friday night with our best-drawing band.”

“Woe is you,” Maureen said, looking over at Sebastian. How much money would he make upstairs? Thousands, probably. Two times, five, six times what she made in a year. I need me a fucking  fund-raiser, she thought. “I get it. This is you telling me I got the better deal tonight, stick­ing down here instead of being sent upstairs.”

“You said it, not me. You can thank me later. Vic and I both know you’re the only girl I got that can run this floor on her own. So you and me, we gotta hustle enough drinks to offset the big  money-suck upstairs.” Dennis patted Maureen’s shoulder, tilting his chin in Sebastian’s direc­tion. “Think of it this way: you and me, we’re making our own valuable contribution to the future of Staten Island. Behind the scenes, as it were.”

Maureen snorted. “Whatever for that bullshit. The truth is, I’m the only one dumb enough to come running when you come calling.” She pulled a smoke from her pack, held it up between their faces. “How about you let me have a few minutes’ peace?” she said. “They’re the last I’m gonna get for a while.” 

Copyright © 2011 by Bill Loehfelm


Bill Loehfelm is the author of Fresh Kills, the first winner of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, and another novel, Bloodroot. He was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Staten Island; he lives in New Orleans with his wife, the writer AC Lambeth.

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