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I’d always liked Darren Morgan.
Right up to the moment he killed me.
He was a likeable kind of guy, easy-going, smart, good-looking, too – but I don’t mean that in any kind of faggoty way. It’s just a statement of fact. Darren Morgan was a good-looking guy and his success with the skirts proved it.
Yeah, I’d always liked Darren.
I thought he liked me, too, which was why I didn’t expect him to turn that .45 on me and put a slug in me. But here I am, the cold cement under me, the grey sky above me, my life oozing from a gunshot wound. It’s kinda relaxing, being this close to the big sleep. I mean, there’s no point in crying over spilled blood, is there? Anything I’d hoped I’d do, I wouldn’t, simple as that. All my hopes, all my regrets, all my failures washed away. Ah hell, it saves any further disappointment.
I’d watched dozens of guys being blown away overseas. Dozens, hell, maybe hundreds. The Bulge wasn’t no picnic, you understand, even though I’d kept my head down and come through without a scratch. But I’d seen plenty of other guys cash in their chips and wondered whether it hurt, being shot. Turns out, it isn’t as painful as I’d thought. Sure, it was as agonizing as hell when the bullet hit me – I’d never felt pain like it – but once that passed there’s just numbness.
Darren didn’t hang around after he put one in me. He didn’t even check to see if I was dead or alive, which hurt more than the bullet. We’d been buddies, pals, amigos, partners. The least he could’ve done was check my pulse but no, he shoved the piece under his sports coat and got the hell out of Dodge.
We went back a-ways, him and me. Did a bit together in Sing-Sing, realised we had mutual interests, namely money and chicks. I was in for a jewel store heist, small time but it kept me in butts and bullets. He wasn’t even big enough to be called small-time, not then. He’d been busted outside a mom and pop store somewhere upstate, a .38 in his belt and larceny in his heart. He’d got this dame pregnant, he told me, needed the dough to put it right, but he made the mistake of telling her what he’d planned and she dropped a dime on him. Rule number one, never tell a skirt nothing. Funny thing was, she wasn’t even pregnant, she’d just told him that to scare him into marrying her.
We got out of the joint within three months of each other and bummed around, pulled a few jobs for eating money, buddied up on a couple of scams. He was a fast learner, too, and we was able to keep on the down low, the cops never even getting a sniff at us. He was a funny kid, I don’t mean yakking it up with the boys, I mean he was downright peculiar sometimes. Take his little routine before a job, when he took a hit of rye. Just the one because there’s no drinking on the job, rule number two. So I started carrying a hip flask and before the action I’d give him the nip, well more than a nip, truth be told, while I slugged it straight from the flask. He also liked me to carry the loot afterwards, which showed how much he trusted me. And I never pulled nothing with the cut afterwards, which showed how much I liked the kid.
But he had this dreamy side to him, he was a romantic. Only time I saw him fall apart was over a skirt. Me, I like the dames but I never get too close to them because they’re trouble. But Darren? He fell hard and she left the marks of her stiletto heels all over him, like they do. He hit the bottle and it hit back and I had to scrape him off the sidewalk and dry him out. That was a bad time and he was never the same. His eyes were sad all the time and he began to lose interest in the work.
It was one night we hooked up in Brooklyn to discuss our options that he talked about the diamond heist. The owner of the bar we were in kept the lights low so his customers couldn’t tell if they were getting ripped off and that suited us right down to the ground. We had a booth at the back, away from the crowd, where we could talk without no one going on the eary.
Darren said, “I wanna make this my last score, Dutch.” That’s me, Dutch Farber. My people were from Nuremberg but I didn’t want to be known as Kraut. Hell, we just got done blowing those SOBs to hell and back five years ago and I didn’t have no tender feelings for my ancestors.
“I wanna get out of the city,” he said, “go find me a tropical island some place, coupla broads with grass skirts and warm hearts, give it all up.”
I sipped my rye. “Sounds like paradise, Kiddo.”
I always called him Kiddo, on account he was ten years younger than me. Just a kid, really, a big, handsome kid who, despite his run-in with that ice-cold dame, still believed there’s someone out there for him, that there was a better life waiting. I wanted to tell him there ain’t no better life, there’s just life and then you die. What you do until then is just a matter of luck and judgement. Darren, though, was still a hick at heart, somewhere deep down he still believed in the American Dream. He had the wheat-coloured hair for it, too, and the dreamy cornflower eyes, like some goddamn farm boy with a straw between his teeth. I’d had to look out for him in the joint a couple of times because some of the guys there took one look and thought he was a pushover. I convinced them otherwise. I’m not a big guy, weigh in at a buck seventy-five but most of it’s muscle and I know how to use it, so they kept clear. They thought Darren and me were sweet and that made me sore at first but eventually I didn’t give a rat’s ass. Let ’em think what they want, didn’t make no never mind to me.
He stared at his rye, his eyes soft. He still hadn’t said what the job was but I waited. I’m a patient guy. Then he said, “You ever killed anyone, Dutch?”
I shrugged. “In the war maybe, can’t never be sure.”
Okay, so I lied but rubbing a guy out isn’t something you brag about. I’d killed before, sure I had. I’d snuffed one guy in Detroit, another in Miami. They were both up-close jobs, which I didn’t much like. Too easy to be fingered. There was a button man for the mob in Jersey who wouldn’t be eating Mama’s pasta no more and that job I was proud of. It wasn’t fast but I got away clean and no one even looked at it as a homicide.
Somebody fed the juke and Sinatra’s voice floated through the bar like liquid honey at 78 rpm. A sailor and a hooker started to dance. It would’ve been a romantic scene but I knew that skirt and knew the guy was headed for a date with a hefty dose of penicillin.
“I ain’t never killed no one,” said Darren, watching them twirl slowly in the narrow space in front of the juke. “Never pulled a trigger in anger.”
“Maybe you never will, Kiddo.”
He looked back at me then and his blue eyes were soft and sad. “I got a bad feeling that ain’t the case.”
I should’ve known right there but I didn’t pick up the signals. Instead I changed the subject and asked about the score.
He leaned forward, lowered his voice. “There’s a guy, a Dutchman like you…”
I didn’t try to correct him, just let him talk.
“…anyway, he comes in the fourth Thursday of every month with a consignment of diamonds, all the way from Amsterdam. He don’t think no one knows but he’s sweet on this lady of my acquaintance and he tried to impress her. She passed it on to me.”
See what I mean? Never tell a skirt nothing.
I asked, “He got protection?”
“One bodyguard, piece of cake for you. Once we take him out the courier ain’t no problem. We take his bag and we’re home free.”
“What’s the take?”
“Two hundred grand in uncut ice.”
Sounded good. We fence the ice right, we were looking at 50 cents on the dollar. And I knew just the guy who would take them off our hands, a dealer in Chicago with the contacts to move the gems without no suspicion. Job this big, it’s always best to get out of town fast, move the take in another city. Rule number three.
Fifty grand each, a nice figure. Be enough to keep me out of circulation for a while but not enough for Darren’s dream, he’d need the whole caboodle to make it work. That should’ve been the second signal but I missed it. I trusted the guy, so sue me.
Darren had done his homework but we still cased the Dutchman the following Thursday, picked him up at the skirt’s apartment on the lower west side, followed him all the way uptown. He kept the diamonds in a little cloth bag he tucked down the leg of his pants and if I looked real hard I could see he moved like he’d wet himself. His bodyguard was a walking muscle but he didn’t faze me. As Darren said, I could take him easy. They took a cab from her building right into the diamond district. We had a choice, do the job before they get in the cab or as the courier headed into the jewelry store. We decided to hit him as he left the building. It wasn’t the kind of street where you’d find a hero and when the cops arrived everybody’d be deaf, dumb and blind. Uptown was different. Uptown there could be heat.
One month later we were jazzed up and ready, watching the skirt’s building. I pulled the flask from my hip pocket, poured out a generous snort of rye into the cup, handed it to him. The kid was nervous and he looked like he needed it. He smiled, tossed the drink back in one then handed me the cup as I tilted the flask to my lips. I poured another one, held it out to him, and he looked at me with a question, rule number two and all.
“Rules are meant to be broken, Kiddo,” I said. “You look kinda tense.”
He raised the cup in a sort of toast and drained it. I screwed the cup back on and tucked it away again in my pocket.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he said.
“Sure, walk in the park,” I said. Then I had a thought. “What about the dame? She could talk.”
“No problem. She don’t even got my real name. It’s all copacetic.”
And it was. Sometimes a job goes so smooth you can’t believe it. The courier came down the stoop with that funny little walk, followed by the muscle. We’d jacked the cab as it cruised into the street, that was easy, and the driver was stashed in the trunk of a stolen Oldsmobile. Darren was making like the driver and I was an angry Joe who was complaining because he wouldn’t pick me up.
“I’m sorry, bud, but I got a fare,” he said.
“Come on, gimme a break,” I said, “just take me a coupla blocks, that’s all.”
He shook his head. “Can’t do it, pally. Like I said, I got me a fare – here he is now.”
I’d been leaning on the roof of the cab, my right hand hidden by my body and when Darren nodded I whirled, the sap swinging right at the muscle’s temple. The lunk went down hard but I hit him again, just to make sure. The Dutchman didn’t know what was happening, the little guy just stood there blinking as I grabbed him by the arm and threw him into the back seat. Darren gunned the motor and roared off. I popped the courier hard on the mouth to make sure he didn’t pipe up and started groping at his belt. The mook wore a belt and braces, cautious guy, so I had to slice the suspenders with my knife, that made his eyes open because he must’ve thought I was going to gut him. I stuck my hand down his pants leg, ignoring the cheesy feel in my belly at being so near to anther guy’s business, and hauled out the bag. He started to say something but my fist in his mouth stopped him dead. Then I gave him a taste of the sap.
Darren dumped the cab on an open lot, threw the cabbie’s cap in the back with the courier, who was out cold now. We walked quickly away, didn’t run, rule number four – don’t draw attention. The whole thing had gone as smooth as a stripper’s ass. The bag felt snug in my coat pocket, didn’t feel like two hundred large at all but what did I know? Darren had said that was the take and I had no reason to doubt it. I’d pulled gem capers before and was always surprised how such a little ice can make a big score.
We wheeled into an alleyway and Darren said, “Lemme see the loot, Dutch.”
I checked the mouth of the alley to make sure no one was watching, then pulled the little black bag from my pocket. When I looked up I saw the big black .45 aimed straight at me and Darren’s sad eyes behind it.
“I’m sorry, Dutch,” was all he said before the cannon went off and I felt the searing heat in my chest and I was flying back against the wall. I must’ve let go of the bag because Darren stooped to pick it up, then looked back at me as I slid down onto the dirty cement. I tried to say something but couldn’t. I know my mouth opened but no words came. I think my mouth is still open.
Darren had the gun hanging loose at his side and he looked at it for a second, as if he didn’t know how it got there. He licked his lips, like he was thirsty, and swallowed hard. Then he thrust the piece and the bag into his coat pocket and walked quickly back down the alley. He didn’t look back again. So much for being buddies.
I couldn’t move and it wasn’t long before the heat in my chest gave way to an icy cold. What was it I’d said? There’s life and there’s death and only luck and judgement in between? So much for my judgement. I thought we were buddies but he had other plans. And I’d run right out of luck.
But then, so had Darren.
I wonder how far he’ll get before the aconite kicks in? Not far, I’d guess. He’d already started to feel its effects, I bet, when he licked his lips. Maybe he put the numb feeling in his mouth down to nerves. He sure as hell wouldn’t think I’d laced his rye with poison. He’s maybe feeling it now, the burning in his throat and in his gut, the skin pain, like someone’s taking a blowtorch to him. He’d be dead soon, I’d put in a full tenth of a grain. He’d lose the use of his legs and his arms. He’d twitch, maybe, and finally his breathing would fail.
That’s how the mob guy got it. I’d slipped the stuff into his fettuccini and was miles away before it took effect. Aconite, huh? Who’d’ve thought a bum like me would’ve known about that stuff? I read about it in one of those Limey mysteries written by a little old lady when she wasn’t knitting. That library in the joint was good for something, after all.
I’d liked the idea of the tropical paradise, but like I said, it needed the whole take. See, when I tilted the flask to my mouth, I didn’t drink, didn’t even let the rim touch my lips. He wasn’t paying no attention so didn’t notice.
I got me a ticket to the west coast in my pocket, via the Windy City, naturally. Won’t need that sucker now, though. I can’t feel nothing, not the concrete, not the air, nothing. It’s all gone black and I know I’m either dead or not far from it.
It should’ve been a sweet score, a milk run of a job. A quick burst of action, a train ride and one hundred large in my hand, simple as. I liked Darren, always have, and fifty grand was good but a hundred was better. A hundred grand can make a difference to a guy.
It can make a man.
But a hundred grand can make killers of us all.
And dead men.
Find out more about author Douglas Skelton here.
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.