Lou Johnston felt worse than lousy. He had been shot in the gut three weeks earlier while robbing a bank, and although Doc Wilson had fixed him up for ten grand, the pain killers he was taking weren't helping a hell of a lot. To make matters worse, his feelings were hurt.
As he lay in bed staring at the television, a scowl formed on his face. He had had nothing but liquids for three weeks and it left what had been a large beefy face looking shrivelled, like a tire that had gone flat. The scowl added to the deflated look.
"Norma!" he bellowed.
A weary-looking blond in her late thirties walked into the room. There was a haggardness about her eyes and mouth. "Yeah, Lou?" she asked.
Lou stared at her sourly. "Get me a beer," he ordered.
"You got one sitting on the nightstand."
"It's not warm. I got it for you only ten minutes ago."
Lou picked up the bottle and threw it at her head so she had to duck. The bottle spewed beer as it flew past her and bounced off the wall.
"Get me a beer," he demanded. "And clean up the goddamn mess!"
Norma stood frozen. After about a minute the muscles in her jaw relaxed enough so she could talk. "Just ’cause you're mad at other people don’t mean you can take it out on me!"
Lou mimicked her, repeating exactly what she said.
"Go screw yourself." she snapped.
"Go screw yourself," he mimicked.
Norma stared at him, and as she did, her hard blue eyes softened. She walked over and sat on the bed and placed a small delicate hand against his cheek. "I know you're upset, baby," she said, a genuine tenderness warming her voice. "But your friends care about you. It's just that they know you're okay and they're probably afraid of being tied in as accessories."
"That's a lot of crap," Lou grumbled. "There are plenty of times I stuck my neck out for them.” Then under his breath, “Goddamn lousy stinking bunch of jerks."
The phone rang. Lou and Norma looked at each other, anticipation tensing both faces. Norma got up and left the room. When she came back she was grinning. "Harry Lansome called," she said. "He's coming by later for a visit."
Lou pursed his lips. "At least one of them's not a total jerk," he noted with a childish smugness.
Harry Lansome was a slight man with a long face and heavy basset hound eyes. He shook hands with Lou, then handed him a box of Cuban cigars and pulled a chair up to the bed. Lou took one of the cigars out and sniffed it, a large broad grin breaking over his face.
"Norma will give me holy hell if I smoke this now," he said with a wink.
Harry smiled softly. "Wait ’til you're on your feet. They'll keep."
"Of course they will. So why'd you wait three weeks to visit? I could've been lying here dead for all you knew."
"Aw come on." Harry shifted uneasily in his seat. "You know how things are. And word's out you're okay."
"Yeah, all I did was take a thirty-two in the gut. Why wouldn't I be okay?"
"I'm sorry Lou -"
Lou interrupted him. "Just giving you a hard time," he said, his eyes playfull. "Pal, I'll tell you, this thing hurts like a mother. Ever been shot in the gut?"
Harry shook his head somberly.
"It was so fucking stupid," Lou said. "All because I'm too nice a guy."
"Yeah, I heard -"
"That sonofabitch bank guard is begging me not to hit him. He must've been at least sixty and he's crying his eyes out about how he's got a family and all that shit. And then all on his own he falls to the floor. Just like that. I should've whacked his fucking head. But I'm being too nice a guy."
Lou's features darkened as he thought about it. "The goddamned sonofabitch. He had a gun strapped to his ankle. Lying on the floor he pulls it out and shoots me in the gut. That after being such a goddamn nice guy and all."
"Pretty lousy, Lou."
"Sonofabitch. I hope they're still scraping his fucking brains off the wall." Lou smirked angrily. "Pal, I got to tell you this thing really hurts like hell."
"Hey, a few weeks from now and -"
"Yeah, I know, I know." Lou sighed, and his eyes hardened as he showed a nasty smile. "You should've seen the look on the sonofabitch right before I blew off the top of his head. What the fuck did he expect?"
"Who knows with these things."
Lou nodded in agreement. He closed his eyes and placed a hand palm up against his forehead. "I better get some rest. Doctor's orders. You know, this is about as serious an injury you can get."
"Sure, of course." Harry started to get up, hesitated, and then sat back down, his slight frame hunched over. "I got big troubles, Lou."
Lou slowly opened his eyes.
"I wouldn't bring it up now with how you're feeling and everything," Harry scratched nervously at his nose, his mouth sliding to one side as if a fishhook were pulling at his lips. "But Jesus, Lou, I don't know what else to do. I need you to talk with Manny Vassey."
"That's the only reason you came here, huh?"
"Jesus, no. Of course I wanted to see how you're doing, but I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone—”
Lou raised a hand to shut him up. "Yeah, sure. I understand. You want a beer?" He yelled out for Norma. When she brought them her smile faded as she looked at Lou.
"Harry needs a big favor from me. That's why he came here," Lou said. He took the beer from Norma and drained half of it with a long swallow. Harry sipped halfheartedly at his.
"How are you in trouble with Manny?" Lou asked sincerely.
Harry gave an embarrassed smile. "Could Norma leave the room?"
"No reason for her to. She's gonna hear it anyway. So what are you doing, ripping Manny off?"
"Not me," Harry protested. He edged forward, his face very pale, almost greenish. "You know I've been running numbers for Manny. I just found out my shithead brother-in-law's been skimming off it for the last six months."
"Fifty grand. "
"Does Manny know yet?"
Harry shook his head vigorously. "No, not yet. I want to pay him back everything plus interest plus anything else he think's fair, but I need you to tell him I knew nothing about it."
"If he thought you did, you'd be dead. After a very long while."
"Come on, Lou." Harry said. "Don't joke about this."
"Who's joking? You know what Manny did before he got into the rackets?"
Harry nodded, a deeper and more sickish green coloring his face. "I heard something about it."
"He was a butcher," Lou said. "It's something he's always liked. I think it has to do with chopping things up."
"Come on, Lou," Norma cut in. "Harry doesn't want to hear about this."
"Sure he does." Lou corrected her. He turned back to Harry and smiled fully. "He still has a butcher's table. But he uses it only for special occasions. I got to watch a couple of times."
"You're making me sick," Harry said. His skin had become very pale, clammy, making it almost look like his face had been molded out of wax. "Don't joke like this."
Lou broke out laughing. "What’s wrong, can’t take a joke? Harry, I'm just playing with you. Don't worry about anything, okay? I'll speak to Manny and straighten him out."
Harry closed his eyes as if he were saying a silent prayer, then he got to his feet and grabbed Lou's hand so he could thank him profusely. He said something about having to meet some business associates. Lou watched vacantly as the slight man turned and left the room.
"Lou, honey, he really did come to see how you were doing," Norma said. She took a step towards the bed and stopped. Lou continued to stare vacantly straight ahead, his face expressionless, phlegmatic. He turned to her slowly and asked her to get him the phone.
"Please Lou, don't -"
All at once his face was chalk white with rage. "Get me the goddamn phone!" he yelled, blood boiling in his eyes.
Manny Vassey stood in the bedroom shaking his head sadly at Lou. He was a short, heavyset man with black oily hair and a complexion that looked like chipped glass. A jagged white scar ran from his left eye to his mouth. Standing next to him were two of his employees, thick-necked humorless wiseguys.
"You got careless," Manny said.
"Maybe so." Lou shrugged. "But only for a minute. Not for six months."
"What do you mean?"
"Why don't you ask Harry Lansome?"
Manny Vassey pushed a thick hand through his black oily hair. The two wiseguys standing behind him were smirking. Manny looked down and regarded Lou with a thin smile. "This isn't funny. What are you trying to tell me?"
Lou propped himself up. "You're goddamned right it isn't funny. It isn't funny when you got some little shitbag like Harry Lansome ripping you off for fifty grand. Why the fuck didn't you ever check to make sure that little piece of puke was collecting what he was telling you he was collecting?"
Manny's thin smile pulled tighter. He turned to one of the wiseguys and whispered to him softly. The wiseguy left the room smirking. Manny turned back to Lou and told him he was going to have some company for a bit longer. He then pulled a chair up to the tv set and sat down. The remaining wiseguy picked up a newspaper and smirked at the comics.
It was over an hour before the first wiseguy returned. He nodded at Manny. "Fifty-two grand," he said.
Manny's face darkened. "It don't make sense," he said. "Harry's smart enough to know what that fifty grand will buy him."
Lou propped himself up. "He was laughing about it, Manny. It was like it was one big joke to him." Lou's voice shook angrily. "If it wasn't for being incapacitated by my wound, I would've grabbed him by his greasy neck and smashed his skull in. I was never so mad in my life, Manny, sitting here and listening to that shitbag brag about fucking you."
Manny moved his head slowly up and down. "Thanks, Lou. I owe you one."
"Hey, what else am I going to do?" Lou lowered his voice. "About owing me one. Maybe there’s soemthing you can do to help me out.” He turned to Norma and told her to get that mask that he used in the bank job. Then turning back to Manny, “How about leaving Harry with a thirty-two in the gut?"
"There won't be enough of him left for that."
"Yeah, well, it wouldn't work anyways." Lou rubbed a hand across his large rubbery face. "He's got a brother-in-law, Tommy Malone, who's a big bulky guy, about my size. It would probably work with him. And it would sure as hell let me sleep easier."
Manny smiled and the light reflected off his two solid gold front teeth. "I'll get the mask from Norma on my way out." They shook hands. After Manny left, Norma came into the room. "Are you okay, baby?" she asked.
Lou lay staring at the tv, sulking, his face embroiled in a petulant frown. "Three weeks and not even one of them calls to see how I'm doing," he complained. "Nothing but a bunch of lousy, stinking jerks."
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