five olives, no twist

In just over four weeks, the city had built itself on top of Cliff.  He lowered the cracked glass window and peered inside the 450 degree convection oven, wondering how it had all happened.  The pizza wasn’t done.  He glanced at the clock and closed the oven.  Two more minutes.  He waited with his back pressed against the walk-in cooler, and then began sliding downward in a less than elegant metaphor until finally Cliff was slumped on the floor, covered in sauce, looking like the clean-up detail in a firing squad factory.  Led Zepplin – the long album – rained down from the set-in-ceiling speakers.  Whenever there were no customers around, Cliff would blast it.

The last pepperoni was bubbling evenly and the crust was golden brown.  Cliff didn’t see it, his eyes were closed.  But from he knew the smell of a well-cooked pie.  Using an oversized spatula he shoveled it out of the oven and used the sixteen inch rocker blade to carefully cut it into ten symmetrical pieces.  Then he went to the front of the oven and turned the dial to ‘Off’.  The beast would rest until tomorrow morning, when Cliff would wake it up at 10 a.m. as he had done the morning before, and the morning before that.

He had it all happened?  He wondered how he ended up juggling slices of pizza in a west end sweatshop pizzeria.  He wondered why he made $6.50 an hour yet he was expected to operate and live in the sweatshop east 57th avenue oven as if it was his own.  He wondered why despite being 23, he continued to hold up his end of that bargain too.  But most of all, Cliff wondered where he was going to come up with five thousand dollars in the next twenty-four hours.

This whole mess started because of Mia.  Cliff should have known he was playing out of his league.  In fact, he did know.  They’d met at the track under false pretenses.  Cliff delivered a 5 pie order to The Jockey Club.  It was the end of the day and it was his last order.  He changed clothes in the car, out in the parking lot.  Mia didn’t see him walk in and deliver the order to the back kitchen.  On the way out, Cliff stopped at the bar for a cold brew to punctuate the end of his day.  No one seemed to notice he wasn’t a member.  From The Jockey Club, the view of the track was excellent.  He decided to back himself into a seat at the bar.

“You’re sitting in my seat,” came her sing-song voice over his shoulder.  Mia held a 4 olive, vodka martini level with her breast.  A floor length, black velvet dress with short sleeves and black hair, tightly pulled up into a bun with a few wispy curls left wild next to her cheeks.  Her smile toyed with Cliff, daring him to not take her seriously.

“I’m sorry.  I was just leaving.”  He stood and tipped back the rest of his beer.  “Here you go.”

She looked at him without moving.  “Of course, you could stay and make it up to me.  I’ve been terribly inconvenienced.  I think one drink would be sufficient reparation.”

Cliff sat back in the seat, a little surprised.  Here he was, illfully out of his element in the exclusive Jockey Club.  He thought of all the reasons he should get up and leave.  While he took his quiet inventory, Cliff watched Mia pull a curl though her fingers and then let in spring and bounce next to her ear.  Looking back it seems a little silly now, but that’s all it took.  Cliff shoved his hand deep into his pocket and pulled out the only money he had, the tab for the order he’d just delivered.

“That’s Vodka?”

“Ketel One love…and five olives, I’ve already eaten one,” she said with a coy smile.

So that’s where it started.  On his way home, Cliff stopped at the ATM to cover the shop’s 40 bucks that he’d blown on dirty Ketel One martinis for the stranger with the wispy curls.  Back in the car he practiced how he’d ask Strommer for an advance so he could take her out.  That may have been premature.  Cliff didn’t have a date with Mia.  In fact, she hadn’t even asked him his name.  But she had dared him to meet her at the track the following day.  In the back of his mind, Cliff wondered just how he’d get back into the club.

Closing time came late the next day due to a pair of indecisive women.  While they debated andoullie sausage or Canadian bacon, Cliff eyed the quivering chins that hung below their jaws and wondered why the discussion wasn’t iceberg or romaine.

He locked the door 15 minutes later than normal.  Cliff hung the night’s deposit between his teeth while he turned the key and locked the door.  The lcd in his car read 9:21.  The last race began at 10:00.  He didn’t spend as much time as he probably should on his next thought; rather than head to the night deposit box at the bank, Cliff turned west on Broadway and pressed the accelerator towards the track and fairgrounds with the zipped deposit bag on the seat next to him.

Getting in wasn’t an issue as he worried it might be.  Cliff had taken his last $50 out of the bank for martinis and to grease the doorman, if necessary.  He didn’t need to.  The man remembered him from the night before and welcomed him in without realizing he’d only been the pizza guy.  Cliff didn’t see Mia at first.  He finally spotted her near the window, twirling the plastic sword with the last olive between her teeth.  A semi-circle of suits had her boxed against the window and she was on stage, reeling them in separately with her sword and an alluring smile and then releasing them, leaving each man wanting her.  Cliff went to the bar and ordered a beer and a martini.

By 10 O’clock, his beer was gone but the semi-circle surrounding Mia was not.  He’d had one of the men come to the bar and order a Ketel One, dirty with 5 olives.  “Jesus,” Cliff thought.  “What the hell am I doing here?”  He started on the martini and in a matter of minutes he tipped back the last sip and let the olive juice and vermouth run over his tongue, smoothing over what the vodka had singed.

“You’ve finished my drink.  You are a piglet.”  Cliff spun around and looked from her black shoes, up her red dress and into her black eyes.  “And an idiot.  Can’t you see when a girl needs rescuing?  Now you’ve begun to ruin my night.”

With a twitch of one of those eyes, Cliff’s frustration and poverty was replaced with faulty confidence and an immediate desire to please her.

“I figured you’d want a fresh one,” he returned.

“You figured right.”

She poured herself into the seat next to him and Cliff glanced back towards the window, where every one of the suits was looking at him and trying to figure out just what had happened.  The bartender set down another Ketel One and another beer for Cliff.  Several seconds passed and while Cliff was silently begging for her to speak.  At the same time, she was silently gloating that he wasn’t.

Mia’s background was hazy, even to her.  She wasn’t from New York, but she’d been there as long as she could remember, which wasn’t all that long.  She earned her way from venue to venue as a performance artist, though, none of her “employers” even knew she was on the “payroll.”  Cursed from birth with the fallacy of beauty, Mia’s insides struggled to keep up with her olive skin and china eyes as they catapulted her forward from situation to scene.  In earlier life, she’d spent time in beauty pageants and even a dog food commercial.  Mia struggled with a rumor that circulated annually in her mind that no one really knew her.

“The last race is late,” she finally said.

Cliff spun around.  “There’s a track here huh?”

She eyed him to confirm his comedy.  “Funny boy,” she said suspiciously, keeping his gaze to make him uncomfortable.  “You’re not a gambler.  You don’t even know one horse’s name.”

Cliff’s confidence was surging with the help of the two beers and the three-ounce martini.  “Oh yeah?  How about Skip and Go Lucky?”

Mia giggled, amazed at his arrogance.   “There is no horse named “Skip and Go Lucky!”

“Well not here, but believe me, she exists.  Don’t get mad at me because you don’t know her.  Maybe you need to bone up on your race schedules.”  Cliff turned back to the bar and fought a smile as he tipped his beer and she stared at the side of his face.

“You are obnoxious!” she returned.  Mia was a little thrown off by his candor…and she liked it.  They sat in silence for a second.  Somehow, the power of the duo had been shifted and they were both trying to figure out just how that had happened.

“Well if you’re so smart, I’m sure you’re excited to see the last race,” she finally said over the bowl of her martini.  She took a gulp.

“I’m excited by every race.  I’m a racing kind of guy,”

Mia lowered her voice and forehead.  “You do have Stranger in a Strange Town in 10, right?”

Cliff looked at her.  “No.  Should I?”

Mia looked at him, dumbfounded.  “How did you get in here?”

For a moment Cliff was worried.  If Mia knew he wasn’t even supposed to be in The Jockey Club, she could have him tossed in a heartbeat.  Worse yet, his cover would be blown along with his chances with her.  Still, he wasn’t quite sure how to answer her question.  “I, uh…”

“Are you crazy?” she interrupted his stammering.  After glancing around to make sure their dialogue was exclusive she leaned into him.  “Stranger in a Strange Land is a payoff.  You’ve never been in here before.  I thought that’s why you came, to collect.”

Uncertain how to respond, Cliff opted to look at her blankly.  “Right.”

Mia sighed.  “Oh good.  So you have a ticket.”

Cliff looked at her.  “Well, that’s why I came, but uh…I forgot to get my ticket.  It’s cool though, they’ll be other races…”

“Idiot!” she exclaimed, slapping him for the second time.  “You can still go now!  But you are very lucky the race is late!”

“No, I don’t think I can make it.  I mean…”

“Go!!”  She shoved him out of his seat.  “I’ll wait here and we’ll celebrate after the race.”

Celebrate?  Cliff stood up and looked around.  No one seemed to be paying much attention to them anymore.  Mia had turned her back to him and was facing the bar.

Standing at the urinal Cliff thought about Mia’s eyes.  They were entirely powerful, he thought.  She knew how to use them too.  The race…Cliff chuckled.  If she only knew.  At the sink he looked in the mirror.  She’s going to know, sooner or later.  Cliff sighed.  Hopefully it would be later.  He thought about Stranger In a Strange Land.

This is the point that Cliff continues to play and replay over and over in his head.  Standing at that sink Cliff had an experience like he’d never had before.  He thought about the race, yes.  And he felt the bulge of the night’s deposit bag in his pocket.  He thought about Mia.  And that was pretty much it.  Somehow, in some way, those china eyes convinced him that what he was about to do made sense.  He had not a reason in the world to trust Mia, and even less of a reason to trust himself.  But Cliff very calmly closed himself into a stall.  He very assuredly took the money that he’d just counted an hour earlier out of the deposit bag, and he began to tally the day’s receipts for the third time that night.

Two thousand six hundred and fourteen dollars.  That’s how much he counted in

the stall and after peeling off a hundred and fourteen dollars for celebration martini’s, Cliff laid twenty five hundred dollars on the counter at the cashier’s cage.

Stranger In a Strange Land.  He looked at his ticket as he walked back into The Jockey Club.  Boy that was one way to put it.   Some of the suits had gravitated from the window back to the bar, probably after seeing Cliff leave.  He laughed to himself at how primal men really are.  Betting the payroll had left him feeling a little punchy and he didn’t hesitate when he finally reached the bar.

“Hey, you’re in my seat,” he said to the back of the head that was sitting where he had been.  The man spun and looked him up and down.  Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have budged.  But this kid had an arid way about him.  He excused himself with a brief goodbye to Mia.

She looked at Cliff with a concerned forehead.

“You made it.  Please tell me you made it,” she said.

Cliff threw a finger towards the bartender.

“Another one?” the bartender responded.

“No.  Two Ketel One’s this time.”  Cliff felt the need for something a little stiffer than the light beer he’d been drinking.  “Yep.  I made it.  Barely too.”

Mia looked relieved.  “Oh good!  Now we can relax.  You made it worthwhile I hope, or were you just trying to appease me?”

“Well considering we just met, I’d say I put about half my faith in your pick.  Twenty five.”  With that he tossed his ticket down on the bar and reached for his 3 ounce glass.  Cliff knew there wasn’t a doubt in her mind that he’d meant twenty five hundred.  He sucked down the chilled vodka and smiled to himself that he was getting rather good at playing the role.

The chimes signaling the final race sounded and most of the patrons in the club shuffled towards the ceiling to floor windows on the opposite side of the bar.

“Shall we move?” Mia asked him.

“Nah…I’m going to sit right here.”  Cliff motioned to the large screen above the bar.  Next to it were the odds on the various horses in the race.  Cliff looked at the numbers and felt a pinch of nervousness as he realized how greek it all was to him.  Despite seeing Stranger in a Strange Land on the board and having Mia’s “inside information,” Cliff knew nothing about horses and he’d just staked his job and possible future one-for five olives and a set of china eyes.

“I like the action from the front,” she replied.  And then she leaned into to him…so close Cliff could smell Gardenias.  Without breaking eye contact she whispered, “Well, the horse action anyway.”  Mia swiveled her chair around and stood.  Cliff tried to swivel too but she stopped his seat from turning with her foot and moved behind him.  He felt the long, burgundy fingernail on her index finger drag down the back of his neck.  Hot breath followed it.  “Don’t go anywhere.”

Cliff turned and watched her hips as she moved like a cat towards the full-length glass.  So entranced was he that he forgot all about the horses and the money.  The shot from the starter’s pistol startled him back into reality.  Cliff moved his eyes back to the screen above the bar.

There’s not a lot Cliff remembers about the next two or three minutes.  Stranger in a Strange Land was the number four horse and as he learned later, a middle of the road pick at seventeen to one.  But call it fate, call it luck, call it skill, training or call it insider trading.  In the end, that number four horse won by a head.  $42,500.

Cliff was awestruck, more so than anyone else in The Jockey Club.  He grabbed a pen and a napkin off the bar and did the same calculation 4 times before he realized that after paying off Strommer’s night deposit, he had just netted $40,000.

Mia.  He jumped out of his bar seat and dodged between the race goers that were filing out of the club.  He reached the glass without seeing her.  Scanning over the crowd, he couldn’t spot her.  Maybe she’d gone to the restroom.  Whatever the reason, Cliff’s need to impress her had just diminished by about 40k.  Business first, he’d worry about Mia later.  On his way towards the door he shoved his hand in his pocket for the winning ticket and…nothing.  A quick panic struck him before he realized that he’d tossed that ticket onto the bar in a weak attempt to impress Mia.

Cliff shoved his way to the bar.  His empty glass and napkins were there, but the ticket wasn’t.  Sickness began to seep into his stomach.

“What did you need son?  Closing up,” said the bartender.

“Uh…I…Listen.  Did you uh…I lost something.”  In his head Cliff was struggling over how much he should say about what he was looking for.

“Everything’s how I left it,” the man said as he lifted up the napkins to wash down the bar.

“Wait!” Cliff yelled.  “Just…wait!”  Frantically he tore through the papers on the bar.  He looked on the floor under the barstools and even went behind the bar where he started tearing through the trash.

“Whoa whoa whoa!”  The bartender grabbed him and shoved him out from behind the bar.  “You can’t come back here kid!”

“Wait!  You don’t understand!  I lost…”

“I understand I didn’t move any of your shit and we are closed!” the bartender interrupted. “Now I don’t know what you’re looking for, but maybe your girlfriend took it when she left.”

Cliff was dumbfounded.  “My girl…”  Girlfriend?  Mia.  His head ripped around and by that time, enough people had filed out of the club allowing him to say conclusively that she was not in there.

Cliff took off like a shot, shoving through a few stragglers at the door and running down the escalator, nearly crippling anyone that didn’t see him coming.  He kept his eyes open for Mia, but she was nowhere around.  Even the cashier windows were clearing out.  He ran to the closest window, arriving just as the woman slid her ‘CLOSED’ sign across the customer area.

“Wait!”  Cliff yelled.

“Closed son,” she said.

“No no!  I know…just wait!  Please!  Listen…I had Stranger In a Strange Land in the 10th!  I lost my ticket!”

The woman stopped and looked at him with an ear-to-ear grin.  “Yeah…me too kid,” she chuckled.  “You find mine and we’ll split it.”  She grabbed her register tray and turned to walk away.

Cliff threw his arms through the bars of the ‘CLOSED’ sign and tried to grab her.  “No!  Please!  I mean it was stolen!  Please!  I know who did it!”

She waved over her head and without turning called “See if they have mine too!”

He was the last one to leave the track that night.  At 1am he was still in his car in the parking lot with a fleeting hope that Mia would pull up next to him waving his payoff.  In 9 hours Strommer would know that the deposit never made it to the bank.  Strommer wasn’t anybody’s friend either, especially not Cliff’s.  In 9 ½ hours he’d already have called the police and in 10 hours flat, there would be a knock on Cliff’s front door.  Strangely, Cliff didn’t feel like he’d just gambled away $2,500 of his boss’s money.  He felt like he’d just been robbed of $40,000.  He pulled his Toyota Tercel out onto Broadway and headed towards no particular destination.  Cliff passed his bank and let out a wry chuckle at the thought of his account balance.  He thought about his mother, upstate somewhere in a nursing home.  He thought about his father too.  Cliff had no idea where he was so that’s all he could do was think.  Surely there was somebody, somewhere that could help him.  $2,500 is not that much money, he thought.  It certainly isn’t $40,000.

It didn’t take long.  When all the avenues had been explored, after he’d counted the remaining $127 in his pocket, and just after Cliff recounted all the things he’d ever heard about white guys with his similar frame in prison, Cliff thought of the absolute last place in the world he would ever go for money.

Fucci may well have been carved out of rock.  If his strapping muscles didn’t convince you, surely his personality would.  He moonlighted as a security guard at the Fashion Bug.  From there, he operated his third profession, the one that really made him money-bookmaking.  Officer Fucci was his daytime name and he was a fixture in the west end in more ways than one.  Everybody knew him for one reason or another.  Hopefully it wasn’t the other.  In a days work, Fucci wrote tickets, planted evidence, handcuffed shoplifters and crippled welchers, and all on the city’s dime.

Fucci had 100% of the action on the west end.  It didn’t used to be that way.  Being law enforcement had allowed him to muscle the competition rather rapidly.  Fucci’s business was common, but quiet, knowledge.  More than half of the 33rd precinct placed bets through him.  Several were on his payroll.  Fucci’s biggest asset as a businessman was his persistence and creativity in the accounts receivable department.  He had an uncanny knack for getting what he was owed, and doing so in a way that discouraged other clients from dawdling on their pay schedule.

Artie Bresendine grew up with Cliff.  Two years after high school he began betting pro football through Fucci.  The Monday after The Seahawks failed to cover the spread in the semi-finals, Cliff had gone to the Fashion Bug with Artie to pay off Fucci.  Behind a rack of denim skirts, two hundred dollars, all in twenties, was passed from Artie’s bony fingers to Fucci’s meaty fist.  Although he waited outside the store, Cliff met eyes with Fucci through the display window as he and Artie walked through the parking lot.  Fucci watched them from the store to the car.  Cliff tried not to look back.

Cliff didn’t know what it would take to borrow money from Fucci.  But he did know that his problem was immediate and to avoid jail, he’d need $2,500 deposited into Strommer’s account by morning.  And he knew where to go.  Fucci’s after-hours business manager worked out of a strip club on 138th.

Rolando was half Puerto Rican and usually wrongfully perceived as only half smart.  People always thought that he wasn’t paying attention…that he had one hand on a girls ass or two drinks too many and somehow, he couldn’t keep things straight in his head.  But that wasn’t the case.  If anything was true, it was that Roloando was smart enough to manage Fucci’s money when Fucci wasn’t doing it himself.  He’d actually been busted by the corrupt cop, three years earlier, for carrying an illegal piece with the serial numbers filed off.  The ride to the precinct served as their initial interview and by the time the patrol car had dropped him off back on his corner-with his piece-Rolando had accepted the highly visible, and highly demanding job of being Fucci’s night manager.

He saw Cliff the minute he walked in.  From behind the club’s one-way glass, Rolando took one look and knew why he was there.  He chuckled to himself.  It was all too obvious when a guy Cliff’s age walked into the Spearmint Rhino and past a half dozen naked asses without so much as turning his head.  He even passed Brandi, the night’s showcase act.  All things considered, Rolando figured the kid was looking for a payout to the tune of about a 5k note.

Twenty five hundred…not bad, Rolando thought as he listened to the kid’s sob story in the back office.  His guess wasn’t far off.  Depending on how long the kid wanted to pay back his debt, five thousand was in the ballpark.  Out of a sense of professionalism, Rolando fought his smile when he heard how the kid got raked at the track.  He only half believed him anyway, but it was a good story.  If the bitch that soaked him really existed, he’d like to meet her, Rolando thought.  The reality was probably closer to a poorly researched trifecta, bet with a wad that wasn’t his own.  Not that it mattered…  Dumb fucking kids.

Cliff was a little surprised to hear Rolando ask him for his driver’s license, but he gave it to him and watched as Rolando handed it over his head to a sleepy looking girl in a chartreuse bikini.  Cliff watched her rub her eyes, brush her nose and then throw his id flat on a copy machine, cowering away from the oscillating bar of white light.

“What’s that for…I guess for your, uh…files or whatever?”  Cliff stuttered a little more than he was used to and a lot more than he was comfortable with.

“Yeah…my files,” Rolando responded.  “The files I don’t open until you miss a payment and I need to talk to your family about it.”  He looked at Cliff without batting an eye.  “That’s not true kid.  I don’t do much talking.”

Cliff wanted to gulp, or sigh…maybe both…but he couldn’t.  Something about Rolando’s passive threat on Cliff’s family struck a loudly resonating chord in him.  Hell, Cliff didn’t even have any family and maybe that scared him that much more.

Rolando sensed just how effective his intimidation had been.  He even smiled, but just a little.  “Relax kid.  Pay your debt on time and we’ll never see each other again.”

“Ok,” Cliff said meekly.

The blond reached over Rolando’s shoulder with Cliff’s driver’s license on top of 25 ragged looking hundred dollar bills.

Rolando looked at the license before handing over the stack to Cliff.  “Ok…Cliff Youngston at 4115 Mapleton Avenue Apartment 101…here is your license and loan.  And here’s the terms:  You will repay your loan, in full, in 4 weeks…plus interest.  The juice is 25 points and it compounds weekly.  Pay it off tomorrow, and you owe $3,125.  Wait the thirty days and it’s an even 5 grand.  I say, pay it off.  Don’t make fucking problems for yourself.  You don’t need that.”

Cliff nodded and looked at the money in his hand.  The picture on his license lined up next to Ben Franklins and that seemed almost funny to him for a second.  Cliff thought he could smell 2500 different types of blood on the bundle of cash.

24 hours later he’d deposited the money and was back at work scraping the scum out of the oven’s canopy at Pizza Toscano.  It was payday too.  $478.00 for the last 2 weeks of his life.  Cliff knew he would have to earn 10 times that in the next month.  He dropped the scraper into a bucket of water and walked outside.

After a week, Cliff wasn’t any more nervous than he’d been in Rolando’s office.  But once two had passed, he had a hard time sleeping.  At three weeks, he didn’t sleep at all and at three and a half, he was seriously considering robbing Strommer to pay off the debt.  What a fucking joke, he thought.  With $2,500.00 he wins $40,000.00…loses it to a fucking stranger and takes out a loan that costs him 200% of what he borrowed in the first place.  At 4 am that Monday night he took a deep breath.  He wished it was a joke.  There wasn’t a doubt in Cliff’s mind that he wasn’t going to be able to pay off the five thousand.  He looked at the ceiling of his 1 room sweatbox and watched a series of sinister pictures display themselves to him…heckling him for not sleeping.

He stopped to get gas on Broadway the next day, and somewhere between $3.50 and $3.60, Cliff had a fleeting thought.  He had 3 days left to pay off Rolando.  He figured, at this point, Fucci probably wasn’t even aware that Cliff was a customer.  Rolando probably waited until his creative influence was a necessity before he alerted the boss to problems.  As he watched the cars and busses, carrying hundreds and thousands of people past him, Cliff remembered something that he was surprised he’d ever managed to forget.  Somewhere in the dirty city, between all the lost bodies and the misplaced souls that screamed for help, there was somebody walking, somebody talking and laughing, somebody drinking a dirty Ketel One martini with 5 olives.  And that somebody had $40,000 of Cliff’s money.

Once he’d recognized the doorman, Cliff breezed threw the doors of The Jockey Club without so much as shaking the man’s hand.  He looked at the bar first before scanning the room.  There were no martini glasses on the bar, no clusters of men by the window and no Mia that Cliff could see.  At the cashier’s cage, he didn’t see her.  It wasn’t until Cliff was outside, in the grandstands looking over the people on the level below him, that he saw her.  As he scanned the crowd from the concessions to the rail separating the gamblers from the horses, the glitter of her 3-ounce glass caught his eye.  When Cliff looked back, he saw that Mia was looking right at him.  And he wondered how long she’d known he was there.  For someone who had ripped him off for 40 grand, she sure didn’t look nervous, he thought.  In fact, the second Cliff realized that she’d already been looking at him and their eyes locked, Mia’s mouth began to curve up at the sides.  Cliff nodded his head towards the concession area, signaling Mia to meet him.  She smiled, a wicked smile and turned back to the race.  It took him a couple seconds to realize that he was in the middle of a standoff.  Mia was ignoring him.  Cliff skipped down the stairs to the next level and began his descent to the box seats where Mia was.

Her eyes were on the track when he reached her, but it was in between races.  “Hello Clifford,” she said, without turning around.  Cliff was a little surprised.  “X, this is Clifford,” Mia said to the only person besides Cliff close enough to hear.  A strapping man with no hair and black ray bans stood up without replying.  Finally Mia faced Cliff, a demure and playful smile on her lips.  “I thought you’d forgotten about me,” she said.

“That’s uh…that’s interesting,” Cliff replied.  “I need to talk to you.”

Mia was leveraging silence.  Inside she was gauging him, but only playfully.  Cliff was a boy, a non-threat.  She knew this and actually, she liked it.  “X, Clifford makes me nervous.  Please, watch him closely.”  The bald ball of muscles moved close to Cliff, so close that Cliff could smell cigarettes and a tangy aftershave.  He made Cliff nervous.

“Listen, I need help.  I’m in a lot of trouble because of you,” Cliff began.  He glanced up at X who was undoubtedly looking down at him through the black-lensed Ray Bans.  “I uh, I know what happened and we have to fix it.”

“Well Cliffy, whatever do you mean?  What happened?” Mia asked.

“You stole my money!”

She turned to the track with the BANG of the starter gun.  “That, Clifford, is debatable, a

point of friction and argumentative stimulation.”

“I need it back Mia,” Cliff said.  You can keep most of it, I don’t care.  But I need

5 thousand dollars.  I’m going to in a lot of trouble!”

She was ignoring him, at least he thought she was.  Inside, Mia was spinning in circles on a playground with her new friend.  She watched her favorite jockey pass them on his new horse, A Face Like A Baby.

Cliff was growing frustrated.  He reached to tap her on the shoulder.  “Hey…”  In a flash his wrist was cranked towards him and Cliff buckled to a knee like a crumbled tissue.  X hadn’t even moved really.  He looked down at Cliff with the unspectacular understanding that Cliff’s arm was a matchstick and his vice-like grip could snap it with the slightest twitch.

Mia turned and looked down at Cliff, “You see X?  Thank you.  I feel very uneasy in Clifford’s presence.”

“Are you crazy Mia?!” Cliff yelled.  “You think this is a game?  You wait until I turn these people on to you!  You wait and see how fucking funny it is then!”

X cranked harder and Cliff’s nose bent towards the ground while he winced and waited for a crackling scream from his arm.  Mia crouched next to him.  She dipped her finger into her glass and traced his lips with the vodka.

“Clifford baby.  You are so cute!  I’m sorry you lost your money, well, your bosses money.  I agree baby, your situation is an uncomfortable one.”  She leaned closer “But if you fuck with me sweetie, you’ll find yourself alongside many of these tired mares after they’ve expired-in the glue factory turning into Saturday art projects.  Have an olive.”  She held it in front of his lips.

He spat at it and cranked his head towards her.  “How do you know where I got the money?!  How do you know my name?!”

“X, Clifford wants to go,” she responded.  “He’s tired of me.  I wonder if we’ll ever make amends.”

X let Clifford up, but stayed between he and Mia.  Cliff looked at them both.  His wrist was stinging and he rubbed it with his other hand.  His eyes narrowed as he looked at Mia.  “You wait.  You’re the one that’s playing out of their league.”

“RRR!” she said.  “Bye Clifford.”

Hours later, Artie Bresendine and Cliff were seated across from each other at the food court in the Cotton Valley Mall.  Artie had been trying to hold together a flimsy roast beef sandwich.  Cliff wasn’t eating.  He was pasty and pale.

“Are you crazy Cliff?”  Artie asked through a mouth of meat.  “Have you lost your mind?”

“Well what else am I supposed to do Artie?  You tell me.  And you better not breathe a word of this to anyone or I swear to God Artie…”

Relax!” Artie interrupted.  “Jesus Cliff…I’m not going to say a word.”  His friend was starting to resemble a corpse.  Artie watched him sink into the booth and begin to sweat.  “Ok Cliff, what I’m going to say is going to sound a little crazy.  But this situation is a little crazy.  So can we agree that nothing leaves this booth?”   Cliff rolled his eyes.  “I’m serious Cliff!  Swear.”

“Jesus Christ Artie I swear.  I swear!”

“Ok,” Artie continued.  “I think going to Fucci is a bad idea.  It’s a bad bet.  You?  I love you Cliff but you are a flea size piss ant that has no business even making eye contact with a terminator like him.  I know you’re worried and you’re having crazy thoughts.  And honestly, I don’t blame you.  But that’s the wrong approach.  He’s not going to care that not only were you stupid enough to gamble your bosses money, but you were idiotic in trying to impress some skirt at the track.”

“I fucking won Artie!  You do realize that?!”

“I know.  But Cliff…who the fuck cares??  That’s not the point here.  You are so fucking boyish sometimes!  You go to Fucci and tell him that story, and you’ll be lucky if he doesn’t slap you through to the last sentence where he hears you say ‘And that’s why I don’t have your money Mr. Loanshark…Mr. Corrupt Cop, Leg-Breaker Sir….’

Cliff sighed and buried his head in the palms of his hands.  “Artie, my whole problem is that I’ve been dishonest.  That’s why I’m here.  I really think the best way to handle this is just to go to him, tell him what happened, and ask to get on some kind of payment plan.”

“Right, right…payment plan.  You know what kind of payment plan Fucci put that science teacher from the Heights on?  The kind where he’s not around anymore Cliff!  Do not be ridiculous!”

“I don’t have any other options!  I can act like a man and tell him I don’t have the money or I can just not pay him and send a big Fuck You and a box of candy.  Either way, I don’t have the money!”

Artie looked at him and traced circles on the table with the condensation from the water glass.  “You’ve got another option,” he said flatly.

Cliff looked up.  “What, run?  Where am I going to go?”

“I’m not talking about running,” he said flatly.  “I’m talking about getting the money.”

“Oh right, right.  Get the money.  How did I forget that one…I don’t know how I forgot that one,” Cliff chuckled sardonically.  “I CAN’T GET THE FUCKING MONEY Artie!!  That’s the whole fucked up, fucking problem!!!  I’m sorry that part of the story escaped you!”

“Where did you get it before?” Artie asked.

“I told you, I stole it from Strommer.  Have you been listen…”

“Right,” Artie said.

Cliff didn’t like how he said it either.  “I know you’re not suggesting I rob Strommer.”  he sighed.  “I know that’s not where you’re going with this.”

Arty stared at him deftly, with a cocked eyebrow, apparently, Cliff thought, waiting to be talked out of the implications he was making.

Cliff sighed.  “I already thought about it.  Strommer would have me locked up before I could even make the drop.”

“Hey stupid,” Artie said.  Cliff looked up.  Artie was leaning over the table.  “If I was talking about getting caught I’d tell you to put on your six-shooter and a pair of chaps and run into Target all guns blazin!” he said, adding a western drawl to the last few words to make his point.  “I’m not talking about you doing anything.”

“You’re going to rob him?” Cliff asked, a little more interested in the idea of somebody else solving his problem.

“Fuck no.”  Artie leaned back in his seat.  “But I know who will…for a price.”

However strange that conversation got, in the food court at the mall…the next few minutes that Artie and Cliff spent in the red booth, just in front of the Little Napoli pizza place sure began making a hell of lot more sense to Cliff than the prospect of him getting gutted by on of Fucci’s gargoyles, or worse yet, knee-capped by the Warlord himself.

Later that day…or night, Cliff, as he’d done nightly for the past two weeks, lied awake on his bed staring at the ceiling.  Since his life had played before his eyes for nearly two full rotations, he’d had ample time to think about himself in a very philosophic manner.  He defined who he was.  He thought about his life…thought about who he was.  Artie’s plan had a certain quality to it.  Cliff liked the Robin Hood-esque idea of stealing from Strommer to pay off Fucci…in a warped kind of way.  But he couldn’t help but feel like there was an easier way…a way more accommodating to Cliff’s gentle nature.  Fucci was a businessman.  He was muscle, but he was a businessman.

Cliff found out where Fucci lived by following him home from the police station.  It wasn’t the way he’d of liked it to play out.  But Fucci wasn’t in the phone book.  He couldn’t start asking around about Fucci’s address…everyone was intimidated by Fucci.  Everybody. And everybody can use a favor.  Cliff believed that if he asked even one person where Officer Fucci lived, the next thing he knew it would be Fucci looking for him.  So he followed him home.  Which was, in all likelihood, probably an equally dangerous endeavor.

Fucci lived in an incredible hillside house.  From his Tercel, Cliff watched him park in a circular driveway and make his way inside.  What ever happened to public servants living in meager conditions?  Never mind that, Cliff thought.  What ever happened to public servants turned loan sharks that ran racketeering and prostitution rings thinking they should at least live moderately so as not to draw attention to their lavish profits from the underworld?  Cliff didn’t think Fucci was stupid, so he took this as a big, screaming middle finger to the rest of the world – complements of the big man himself.  He shuddered.  Businessman.  He’s a businessman.

It took about another 5 minutes for Cliff to get his story straight, and then another 15 to get his nerve up.  When the blue lcd on his dashboard read 6:23, Cliff opened the door to his car.

At the same time, a red Mercedes – E Series zipped up into the driveway and took a turn towards the garage, away from Cliff.  Fucci’s wife, Cliff thought.  Bet she’s a looker.  His suspicions were confirmed, at least partially, when the garage door began to fall.  A tightly wound leg in stilettos heels hit the ground just before the garage door shut Cliff out, and momentarily, his fear was suspended in a daydream of what those legs were carrying.

In the passenger seat was a clear plastic bottle of the cheapest, charcoal filtered vodka he could get at the local supermarket.  He’d drunk about a quarter, and figured one more swig could keep his nerves company for awhile longer, without causing any slurring or stuttering during his conversation with Fucci.

It took Cliff sixty seven paces to walk from his car on the street, across the pavement and onto the sidewalk, through the gates and up the driveway, (where he nearly began hyperventilating) onto each cobblestone that led the way to the house’s entrance, which is where he stood, rethinking his entire plan.

He didn’t think long.  As the door swung open revealing Rolando, Cliff heard the high voltage snapping of the stun gun from behind him.  Spinning around, he didn’t know who he should speak to, or what he would say if he spoke…and so he stood.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” asked the bulky man who was blocking him from tearing towards his car screaming.

“I…uh…”  He sputtered like an old Volkswagen with a tank full of pond water.

“Nice going Vernon,” Rolando said, opening the door after realizing that the mortified rabbit that was pressing its back against the side of the house didn’t pose any danger.

“What the fuck are you doing here kid?!” he asked again.

“Wait…don’t I know you?”  Rolando stepped out of the house and brought his face only inches away from Cliff’s.  “Yeah…Clifford.  What are you doing here?  You got my money?”

“No…No…I uh…I don’t have your money.”

“Rolando you know this kid,” Vernon asked.

Momentarily, Rolando shifted his snakey eyes onto Vernon, spitting an old toothpick he was chewing in his direction.  “Vernon,” he said slowly “go back to your fucking post and practice doing the job that you have apparently forgotten how to do.”  Rolando wasn’t messing around.  Vernon backed away for a few steps, and then left the two of them alone in front of Fucci’s front door.  When he was out of sight, those snake eyes came back to Cliff.

“Sorry kid,” he said.  “But in that…disruption I thought I heard you say that you don’t have my money.  I think maybe our communication was you know…messed up by that…dumb fuck,” he said, nodding towards the direction Vernon had retreated.  “Tell me again about my money?”

“I don’t have it…I mean I didn’t bring it,” Cliff said.  “But I still have another week to pay,” he continued.  Rolando just looked at him.  “I have one more week,” he repeated.

Rolando eyed him suspiciously.  Something in the boy’s words wasn’t adding up.

“One more week…yeah.  So why are you here? I do all of my business in my office so, you’re in the wrong place. After chuckling he continued, “You are really in the wrong place.”

Cliff sucked in his breath as they arrived at the location in this discussion that he most wanted to avoid.

“Yeah I…yeah.  I’m here because I’m not going to have your money.”

Rolando’s head creased as he tried to decipher Cliff’s words.  Despite earning a PhD on the street and working to the top-ranks of Fucci’s bruiser brigade, for the life of him, Rolando could not make sense of what the boy was saying to him.

“Well,” he said, a burgeoning leer exposed the yellow jags of teeth that were still left in his mouth.  “Then I guess you are at the right place.”  He backed up and motioned towards the door.  “Come on in Clifford.”

Fucci’s house was like a museum of bad taste.  Square mirrors walled the entry hallway and forced Cliff’s eyes to the ground the minute he saw his reflection and how much like a rabbit en route to a tiger’s cage he really looked.  A glass hallway table balanced on a black-panther base that seemed to leer at the two as they walked deeper into the bowels of Fucci’s house.  Cliff stepped around it as Rolando led him over the white shag carpet, down the hallway, which was like a funhouse, past an entryway to the kitchen and finally to the game room where Rolando opened the door carefully, letting out screams from an excited sport’s announcer as he did.  He paused and took one short look at Cliff – as if to convince himself that he was really there – and stepped inside the noise.  Cliff followed.

The room was dark; Cliff stopped to let his eyes adjust, unable to shake the feeling that he’d just walked into a giant mouth.  Once his eyesight was restored, he realized that the blue tongues that were flickering across the walls and high beam ceilings were being reflected from a gigantic TV that was set in the far wall.  The set was the source of the chaotic screaming as well.  Apparently the Eagles had just intercepted.  Cliff could see that Rolando had walked down to where a dark, menacing silhouette sat with it’s back to the door.  Rolando’s demeanor had changed.  Even he stepped lightly in Fucci’s presence.

Fucci sat like a flexed muscle in front of a projection television.  On the couch next to him was a tray with a pile of boiled shrimp.  The game room was his sanctuary…his private time away from business…away from the wife…away from everything.  Of course, every now and then his alone-time had to be interrupted, like the time he had to spend half of the third quarter explaining to a City Councilman what kind of recovery period you needed for two broken thumbs.  And once he missed the whole second half because a deposition with Internal Affairs went longer than ususal.  But those things were part of his job.  He couldn’t imagine a situation bad enough for Rolando to bring a complete stranger into his house and, worse yet, into his quiet time.  He didn’t like to be disturbed.

“Get the fuck out of the way.”

“Fucci,” Rolando said, “this is Clifford.  He owes us money.”

He was eating them with the shell on.

“You borrow my money, presumably because you’ve irresponsibly fucked it away somewhere else in your life.  You borrow my money to unfuck your errors…your problems, whatever.  I do you this favor, I loan you the money you need.  I do my part to help you, an irresponsible stranger.  That about right?”

“Yes sir.  I would also add that…”

“Shut the fuck up.  Shut your yammering, fucking irresponsible, mouth.”

“Sorry.”

“Am I right?  And the answer better be yes.”

“Yes.”

The TV exploded.

“And Gallagher hits the end zone!  With only three seconds left on the clock he,”

Fucci watched for a second, and the hit the mute button, annoyed.

“Have any idea what just happened?”

Cliff shook his head

“I don’t either.  Rolando?”

“The Eagles just scored.”

“I see…the Eagles just scored.  I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know that because I am in my house, on my couch watching my TV and I am worrying more about your job than you are!”  With the last five words he cleared the TV tray in front of him with a swinging forearm, stood and crashed the tray directly into Rolando’s nose, sending him directly to the floor.  Then he grabbed the remote, punched a button and the dimmer brought light into the room in a rapid crescendo.  Cliff wished the lights away because, in the light, he could see how wild Fucci’s eyes really were.

“When are you going to have my fucking money?”

Cliff began to shake.

“I…I can…”

“Thursday.  You have my fucking money on Thursday.  And since Rolando is out of a job, you will give my money to me personally.  Understand?  And we never do business again.  You never want to see me again.  If you see me again after Thursday Cliff you are already dead and I am coming to collect what you owe me in your afterlife.  Clear?”

“Y-y-yes.  Yes sir.”  Cliff turned and tried to control his hyperventilating, but when he saw Rolando, still unconscious behind the couch, he chugged breath even harder.

Fucci sunk back into the couch, comfortable that his threats had hit their mark.  Now that business was done, he looked around like a big kid that had just spilled his milk.  Hitting more buttons on the LCD of the remote activated an intercom.

“Honey come in here.  I made a mess.”

“What did you do you bad boy?”

He looked embarrassed for a second…his eyes shot to Cliff.  “What the fuck are you looking at?”

Cliff’s eyes dropped to the floor, but he wasn’t thinking about Fucci being a big mama’s boy.  He was thinking about that voice, and how familiarly it had raised the hairs on the back of his neck.

“Tell Anthony to come in here and get Rolando too.”

“Coming.”

Less than thirty seconds later, Anthony arrived and didn’t seem the least bit surprised by the mess he was there to clean up.  He shoved the plate, silverware and half-chicken aside.  Those weren’t his problems.  He turned Roland flatly onto his back.  That was his problem.  Rolando was drug out of the room by his right arm like a sack of potatoes.  Cliff shook, feeling responsible for Rolando’s beating.

When the TV room door opened, the light from the hall was parted with an hourglass figure, Cliff’s mouth went dry and his hands turned cold.  Mia turned on the lights and he could see that here eyes were already fixed on him.  Fucci perked up when light flooded the room.

“Mia this is…”

“Clifford.”

Fucci sat up and looked at Cliff, who’s eyes were widening in time with the creasing of Fucci’s forehead.

“Clifford and I met at the track.  He was hitting on me,” she cooed.

“That is not true!”

Fucci cocked a knowing grin on his face.

“You weren’t at the track?”

“I was.  But only to…I swear I never hit on your wife sir!”

“X had to protect me.  I was very nervous,” she went on, before grinding salt into the wound.  “It was the night I won.”

Cliff tried to calm himself and even out his words.

“I would never…”

“You’re a gambler.”

“I…no.  No sir.  I’m not a gambler.”

“He bet $2,500 on a long shot that night.  He was trying to impress me.”

Cliff felt like he was smothering in quicksand.

“I did bet that night,” he said.  “But sir…I was”

Fucci interrupted him.

“Save it.  Sit down.”

On their own accord, Cliff’s knees bent immediately and seated him on the edge of Fucci’s overstuffed couch, only inches away from the giant.  Fucci leaned close to him.

“You like my wife’s ass?  I take it as a complement.  Come to my house, interrupt my family time, I don’t know how to take it.  But Cliff buddy, believe you me, don’t deliver my five thousand dollars to me on Thursday and I guarantee you, I will take that as a dare…and-I-fuckin-love-dares.  Do you know what will happen?”

“Y-Y-Yes.”

“What will happen?”

“You-You’ll break my legs or cut my finger off…or break both my hands with a hammer…or take my femur bone and put it in one of those grinder thi…”

“No.”

“No?  Um…then I don’t…”

“I’ll kill you.  Get out.”

A punch of the keypad and sound began to drift back into the room.  Third quarter.  The Eagles were losing.

Without Rolando to lead him, Cliff felt drunk and lost in the gaudy manor.  After taking two unfamiliar turns, he was in the kitchen.  And he was in the kitchen with Mia.

“Hi Cliffy.  Staying for dinner?”

“No.”

“Tragic.  Then I’ve thawed too much…beef,” she cooed.

Beef.  Cliff’s heart and his good sense that told him to get the hell out of that house, find Artie and end this nightmare…all melted away.

“Why are you doing this to me?”

“What’s that, little Cliffy?”

“Don’t call me little Cliffy.  You know what really happened!”

“Oh what really happened Cliffy?  You stepped out of your league and you’re still there.”

“You ripped me off!  And don’t call me Cliffy either!”

“What difference does that make now?  You want to go talk to my husband about it?  Go ahead!  Tell him how you ripped off your boss to try and fuck me and see how much that helps you…little Cliffy.”

“You are such a b-bi,” he chugged.  He hated her so bad he could taste it, but not bad enough to forget about the fact that as of that point, he was still walking out of Fucci’s house on his own accord.

“Would you like to meet at the track on Tuesday?  It could be an anniversary of sorts.”  Mia reached to his face and brushed his hair back over his ear.  “Drinks, of course, will be on me.”

“No thank you.  I don’t think I can afford another date with you.”

Her eyes turned icy as she twisted the lock of hair and yanked down, making him wince.

“Well then I guess I’ll just see you later.”

Her hand dropped to her side.

“Get the fuck out of here.”

________________________________________

Back at the food court, Artie seemed indifferent.

“What do you want me to say?  I told you it was a bad idea and it was.  You’re lucky to be alive.”

“You don’t think it’s a little weird that she’s the same girl, that I have to pay the woman who ripped me off?”

Artie shrugged.  “Honestly?  What’s weird is your not wanting to resolve this situation and get as far away from it as possible.  I won’t even get into the obviousness of this all unfolding as a result of you making a string of bad decisions to get laid.  That I won’t do.  But for Christ’s sake Cliff, end the idiocy and quit fucking around in areas where we have no business even being, let alone fucking around.”

Music was playing over there.  People were talking over there.  Artie was over there.  Cliff felt himself unstitching at the end of a rotating kaleidoscope, while he helplessly watched his life happening to somebody else.

“I have one week.  What am I going to do Artie?”

Artie looked at him long enough to let Cliff know that he’d asked his last question.

“You’re going to give me your schedule for the next week.  You’re going to go to work and live your life.”  Artie licked his lips.  “And if anything happens at work, God forbid you get robbed or something…you’re going to do exactly as you’re told.”

________________________________________

July 19th. No sleep for three days.  Cliff’s shift began at two, and by twenty of, he had purged his bowels four times and thrown up twice.  Momentarily he would forget why he was so nervous.  He would look out the car window count seconds between changing lights or watch a couple in the crosswalk.  And then, like a scalpel carving a prayer in the eroding lining of his stomach, he would remember that this was the day he would orchestrate robbing himself to pay back his debt to a gangster.

Strommer had opened the store and he left with a grunt when Cliff arrived.  As soon as he was out of sight, Cliff checked on the three customers munching slices by the window and did a quick tour of the kitchen.  In a graceful act of normalcy, Strommer had done little to clean up his opening mess in the kitchen.  Scraps of dough were hardening on the stainless cutting table and floor while scarlet spatters of tomato sauce were sprayed on the wall like Jack The Ripper had just finished preparing brunch for a few close friends.  He got things in order, taking time to get his nerve, and then Cliff looked through the sales log from the weekend…$7,234.  He smiled, and then crossed his fingers that Strommer had not gone to the bank yet.  Cliff dipped below the counter and turned 34-22-14 on the floor safe dial, so anxious that he missed 14 three times and had to start over.  When he snaked his arm into the hole in the floor and felt the cash bag, he knew he was in luck.  The vinyl sack was fat and full; Strommer had not gone to the bank.  Quickly, he retrieved and unzipped the bag, separating the checks onto the ground next to him and counting the cash.  $3,278.  Not $7,234, $3,278.  It wasn’t enough.  He leaned his back against the cabinets and sighed, putting his hot face in his palms.  The smell of toasting crust was sickening him.  Next to the 455 degree convection oven, Cliff began to melt.  And then he began to bake.

“Yoo hoo!  I need a refill please!”  Cliff sighed again and stood to help the stodgy woman with the mushroom and pineapple recover from her sugar emergency.

“No problem,” he said, pulling himself to a standing position.  “Would you…”

Mushroom and pineapple hadn’t moved.  She was still at the window, and her glass was full.  Mia, on the other hand, was an arms length away from Cliff.  And X, the 280 pound clenched muscle, was a stone’s throw from her in a black sweat suit, as usual, looking like few things were as tasty to him as breaking off Cliff’s arm and beating him with it.

“Hi Cliffy.  What can I get that’s not too fattening?”  She was twisting the frames of her sunglasses between her lips, just nibbling on them with that coy smile that was saying ‘This mouth?  It bites, and then it chews.  And then it devours.’ A tight fitting nylon top that cupped her breasts where the bra that she wasn’t wearing didn’t caught Cliff off guard.

“What do you want?”  His mouth was dry.

“Now, now…is that any way to treat a customer?  Besides, you know what I want.”

“No, I really don’t.  I have your…your husbands money,” Cliff lied.  “It’s ready for his people or whatever.  Now is there something else you’d like…some raw meat maybe?  Please don’t take food off of the salad bar.”

Mia’s dainty little fingers had snuck into the stainless steel dish on the salad bar that kept the green olives chilled, selecting a target and then raising it up to her widening lips.  Cliff was momentarily transfixed the minute her lips parted.  He felt his mouth almost open with hers.

“I came for the money,” she said with a full mouth.  “You need to give it to me.  Actually give it to X.  I don’t want you acting like a little whiney-faced drippy nose again and blaming me for your irresponsibilities.  I’ve had enough of that,” she added.

Focused as ever, X stood like a concrete gargoyle, arms crossed over his chest, which seemed to be pulsating.  This was the first time Cliff had seen him without sunglasses.  In their absence, X seemed a little more human, a little more apt to distraction.  Ever since Mia had snaked the olive from the salad bar, X’s eyes had been flickering between Cliff and the silver dish of pepperoni, next to the olives.  He wanted one.

“Fine.  Its in the back…I just need to…”

“Its in the floor safe, which is open.  Bend down slowly without breaking eye contact with me.  Rise slowly, and hand me the money.”  It was a Mia Cliff hadn’t seen before.  She was scaring him.

“Ok…ok…no problem.”  He took a step backwards.

Behind Mia, Mushroom and Pineapple and her friend had gathered their things and were approaching the counter.

“There is a customer coming up behind you.”

“That’s ok Cliffy…X.”

X, clenched muscle X, the same clenched muscle X that had dropped Cliff to his knees without an increased blip of heart rate moved quickly.  Like a transformer he morphed from laser-focus bruiser into the warm and congenial matire‘d of Pizza Toscano, greeting Mushroom and Pineapple with an ear to ear grin that could tame a kitten out of a tree.  Or King Kong off the Empire State Building, Cliff thought as he watched in amazement.

“Hi!  How was everything?” X cooed, delicately slipping the check from the woman’s hands.

“Oh, do I pay you?  It was wonderful!  We’ve always heard about the piz…””

“That’s fabulous!  Are you from the Midwest?”
The woman looked like she’d had her mind read.  “Why yes!  Mishawaka

Indiana!  That’s amazing!”

“No, no.  Not amazing…I guess I just have a nose for my own.  I’m from Elkhart.”
“Elkhart?  Well how about that!  June!” she called to her lunching partner.  “This nice boy is from Elkhart!”  Cliff winced.  June waved from the table.  “Well I’ll be!  Well how much do we owe son?”

“Maam, today is your lucky day.  I wouldn’t dream of not picking up the tab for a couple of hometown Hoosiers.  You ladies just have a nice day.  Its on me.”

Mia rolled her eyes.

“Well aren’t you just a charmer!”  She turned around.  “June!  The nice boy from Elkhart is buying us lunch!”  Cliff grimaced.  X wore personality like a well-suited Halloween costume.  June waved again.  X waved back.

“Thank you so much son!  Are you sure I can’t talk you into it?”

“No, no…my mother wouldn’t have it.”

“Well alright then,” she said putting her pocket book into her over-sized purse.  “And if you’re ever back in…”

All the niceties in the room that were distracting from business seemed to finally get to Mia.  “He told you it was free, didn’t he fatty?”  She blurted, never breaking eyes with Cliff.  “Now pretend you’re our millionth customer and haul ass.”

The woman stood for a moment, surprised by the assault…and then lowered her head, probably reminding herself of all the horror stories she’d heard about people from the city.  She leaned in mumbling under her breath to X, and then Mushroom and Pineapple gathered June from the window and promptly hit the pavement.  X crossed his arms and resumed his gargoyle position.

“The money Cliff.  You were getting the money,” Mia reminded.  “Slowly.”

Cliff bent at the knees, and rose with the bag…handing it over the counter.

“Take the cash out of the bag.”

He did.  As slowly as he was moving, Mia was growing increasingly impatient.  Her hand darted out and gripped the money like an eel grabbing lunch.

“X, count this.”

X wrapped a meaty fist around the cash.

“This all 20’s?”

“No.  There are some 10’s and 5’s in there.”

X squeezed the stack.

“There’s less than $5,000 here.  I’d say closer to three.”

Mia’s eyebrows raised.  Cliff sputtered.

“That’s right, there’s only three.  That’s all I have right now.”
“Well that’s problematic Cliffy Wiffie.”

“I know.  Don’t call me that…please,” he said weakly.

“Well you’re tying my hands like some sickly twisted sexual lunatic,” she toyed, dipping her entire hand like a crane into the olive tray and hoisting out its entire contents.  “What, Cliffy, do you suspect I should do?”

He fumbled around for an answer before blurting out, “Look I didn’t know you were coming here so early.  Please don’t take food out of the salad bar like that.  It’s unsanitary.  Your husband said he was coming.  I’m picking the rest up after I leave here…really.  I will have it all…later today.”

Her eyes flickered fire.

“Two thousand dollars Cliffy.  Bring it to the track.”

She spun and marched out assuredly.  X stepped forward and locked his eyes on Cliff while he emptied the pepperoni tray into the pocket of his sweat suit.

________________________________________

He turned the CLOSED side of the sign around to deter other customers from coming in, but Cliff decided to wait for Artie’s guys to let them know that the heist was off, so he left the door unlocked.

While he waited, Cliff took the back off the Centipede machine and added thirty free credits to the $5614 he’d already stolen from Strommer that month.  Add to that at least 2 cheese slices or a spicy Italian Hero nearly every shift he worked and Cliff figured he was definitely good for three to five years on Rikers, once Strommer got a hold of him.  But Strommer wouldn’t get a hold of him.  It took nearly 40,000 poison mushrooms, 17 screens and all ten high scores in the Centipede Hall of Fame for Cliff to think lucidly about the predicament he was in and, ultimately, form an exit plan.

Two thousand dollars.  There was no way.  After Artie’s guys had come and gone, Cliff would bake enough pizza to live on for a few weeks.  He glanced at the clock.  9 hours until the store’s official close.  16 hours before Strommer was back.  He figured he could cook and freeze enough food to last him about two weeks.  Using what cash was left in the register, he’d buy Styrofoam coolers and ice, gas up the Tercel and head west.  Or maybe he’d head towards Florida.  Truthfully, Cliff didn’t really know what direction he’d drive, but one thing was certain; he’d seen the last of Strommer and he’d seen the last of Fucci and his mob squad.  When Cliff paused long enough to consider whether he’d seen the last of Mia, a descending fly kamikazzee’d onto his last player.  Game over.  Appropriate, he thought.  He’d seen the last of Mia too.  Two pepperoni’s tossed in the oven.  Time to get started.

What made a person so evil?  What made someone so greedy that they would steal and steal…and steal from someone who didn’t even have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of?  What makes someone such a bitch?  He reached behind the machine and racked up another 10 credits.  Mia liked him, he was sure of it.  Somewhere behind those charcoal eyes and olive skin, she connected with him, wanted to know more about him.  After all, that night at the track, she could have approached any other swinging dick in the Jockey Club and they’d of been eating out of her hand, that was clear.  But she hadn’t.  Instead, she approached Cliff and had drinks with him.  She’d asked him to come back the next night.  She’d waited for him the next night.

And then she’d robbed him.

Cliff sighed, and went to check on the pizzas.

He was lifting the corner, checking for the golden brown of a well-cooked crust when the bells on the restaurant door sounded.  He didn’t spin around immediately, he’d been expecting his “robbers.”  Two more minutes. The oven door swung shut and he turned, and froze.

It wasn’t some street guys from the neighborhood that had been sent by Artie standing at the corner.  No, Cliff was ready for that.  What he wasn’t ready for was an impromptu visit from Fucci himself.  But that’s what he got.

Fucci was alone.  Clad in a beige, floor length overcoat, he walked in from the outside and up to the counter, taking his eyes off Cliff only briefly to look around.

“Not much of a uh, lunch rush.”

Cliff couldn’t speak, so he just nodded.

“You got my pizza?”

Now he just blinked.

“Hey kid, you got my pizza?”

Cliff hoped like hell that the question he was being asked was really the question that Fucci wanted answered.

“Sure.  Sure, let me get it.”

In a series of well-connected movements, Cliff pulled one of the pepperoni’s out of the oven, carefully sliced it into ten symmetrical pieces, slid it perfectly into a crush-free box and pushed it across the counter to Fucci, with napkins.

Fucci’s head and eyes dropped to the box, and then just his eyes lifted back to Cliff.

“You got a hell of a sense of humor kid.  Ok, what say I take another one…in another box.  You know what I’m saying?  Put my other pizza in another box, so I can leave….get the fuck out of here, you know.  And…no more jokes.  My sense of humor can’t handle no more.”

Mia must have told him the delivery was light.  Hyperventilating started to seem normal, familiar.  “I uh…sir.  I’m sorry.  The r-r-rest of the m-money…”

“Money?  Kid, I don’t know what you’re talking about…money.  What I came for, is the pizza that I ordered.  Now you’ve been very generous and what not with this, uh, other thing.”  He tapped the boxed with the manicured tips of his fingers.  “And I appreciate being recognized as a good customer.  But what I’d like now son, and what you’d like too, believe me, is if I could get the pizza that I ordered.  That’s what I came for.”  His eyes narrowed.  “Do you have the fuck-in pizza I came for?”

“I gave it to your wife.”

For a moment, all sound ceased.  All time stopped and the two of them thought about what the hell Cliff had just said.  Cliff started to recite the alphabet as fast as he could in his head.  After a sigh, it was Fucci that broke the silence.

“Come over here kid.  Come on this side of the counter.  Easy.”

“Ok, I will.  I just want to say though, that…”

“RIGHT FUCKING NOW JUNIOR!  RIGHT FUCK-IN NOW!”

Cliff near sprinted around the counter.

“STOP.”

He stopped, just in front of the salad bar where he noticed the empty trays that used to hold the pepperoni and green olives.

“Stay there.”

From the side pocket of his overcoat, Fucci fished out a small cellular phone.  He flipped it open, squinted at the key pad, and punched in a few numbers.

“Hey, honey.  I am picking up my pizza right now, from my friend Clifford.  And my friend is telling me something interesting, but he ain’t making no sense to me.  Clifford has so respectfully informed me that he has given away my pizza.  More specifically, he said he gave it to you.  Now, my question to you, sweet lioness of love, did you pick up my pizza from Clifford?”

Cliff could only exhale in chugs, and his body was rocking forward and back.  He realized, once again, that his fate was being steered by Mia…the one person in Cliff’s life that had never driven between the white lines.

“I see,” Fucci said.  “Thank you dear.  I will see you soon.”  Before closing his phone, Fucci’s lips smashed themselves together and he made the most sloppy, unrecognizable puckering sounds Cliff had ever heard.  Even on the verge of wetting his pants, that sound was troubling to Cliff.  It sounds like a rhino, he thought.

“Well Clifford, you are in luck,” Fucci said.

Cliff closed his eyes.

“Thank God.”

“Yeah…you should thank someone.  Because today son, you have been dealt a card that most people never get.”

“Oh god…thank you sir…thank you.”  He exhaled big and put his face in his palms.  “You know, I made some bad decisions…and things just kept getting worse.  I was sure that you would talk to her and she would say…well…” Cliff looked up into the barrel of a nickel-plated 44 Magnum with a ten inch barrel and froze.

“You’re in luck that I am meeting my wife at the track and I therefore do not have time to torture you in the bizarre manner that would normally afford me the most entertainment.  Get behind the counter.”

He didn’t wait for Cliff to move this time.  Fucci used his free hand to shove Cliff into the wall where he banged his head on a beer light and his body slid to the floor.”
“BEHIND THE COUNTER!”

Cliff crawled…blubbering.

“Why?  Why are you going to kill me?  I’ve done everything I can.  I’m just a pizza cook…I don’t have anything…I’ll never amount to anything…I suck…”

“SHUT UP!”  Fucci kicked him in the pants.  “You know why!  You don’t have my pizza!”

“What are you talking about?  You keep saying pizza and I get confused!  I know I owe you $5,000, but you keep saying pizza and I don’t know if it’s some kind of code or if you really want one!”  Tears were streaming down his face.  Cliff pulled himself up into a sitting position beneath the counter, where he was just hours earlier, and looked up at Fucci, who was looming above him, wild-eyed and rocking back and forth on each leg.

“SHUT-UP!”  Fucci kicked him again.  “So how do you want it kid? In the face, so its over quick?  Or do you want it in the gut, where you’ll hang around for awhile, but at least your ma can recognize you?”

“Not at all!  I want it not at all!”

“Not an option.”  Fucci raised the gun.  “But I got five minutes to watch you roll around, so if you don’t pick, I’m going to shoot off your toes first and then shoot you in the face after I eat my pizza!”

“OK OK!  Then I p-pick…” He was hyperventilating again.

“Hurry up!”

“I can’t remember the choices!”

BANG!  Cliff thought it was strange how, in death, he could still smell pizzas.  It was when the pain finally circuited from the big toe on his left foot to his central cortex that Cliff knew that he was, in fact, very much alive.  And then he screamed.

“I told you?  Didn’t I tell you?  I TOLD YOU!  You should have picked!  Now I’ll give you one more chance!  Head or gut?”

Cliff couldn’t respond, even if he wanted to.  He was in so much pain that bells had taken over his head…and sounded a lot like the front door chimes.  It was all he could hear, until…

“We’re closed.”

“Oh you’re clothed?  Hey Neal he’s clothed.  Hey I’m really thorry about that…I geth we thould have known by the fucking thign that thed you were clothed that you are clothed.  What are you, thum kind of witheguy?”

BANG!  And Cliff heard the sound of a fifty-pound sack of potatoes hit the floor.

“Something like that,” Fucci responded.  “Move up here to the counter.  And YOU,” he kicked Cliff.  “Get your ass off the ground.”  Cliff was pulled up by his hair, falling twice when trying to stand on his left foot, which was light one big toe.

Fucci looked at him pathetically.  “Christ just stand here.  Fucking pussy.”

The guy, the one at the end of Fucci’s 44, was someone Cliff had never seen.  He had on black jeans, a black turtleneck and black gloves, and he didn’t look one bit nervous about the predicament he was in, whatever it was.  In a standing position, Cliff could also see who was curled up at the base of the salad bar.  He recognized the dead boy as Neil Chesterfield, a friend of Arties that Cliff never liked.  He would have recognized Fucci, maybe that’s why Neil hadn’t mouthed off like the guy who was still standing.  These were Artie’s guys.  Cliff leaned over the counter a little further and realized that head or gut didn’t really matter.  Neil got gut, and he was dead as winter.

Fucci greeted the other man with a swift crack between the butt of the revolver and the man’s forehead.  Even though a large cut opened just above his eye, he didn’t go down.  But Fucci didn’t even take a second to be impressed before this guy too got the big toe treatment.  This time, he went down.  Fast.

“Get up you miserable little smart mouth fuck.  GET UP.”  Fucci helped him halfway up before taking both of the man’s ears and ramming his head into the salad bar.  “GET UP!”

Blood was streaming down the robber’s face, and still, he said nothing.  He never broke eye contact with Fucci either.  Instead, he reached the tip of his tongue out the left side of his mouth where he could catch the blood drizzling down from the wound in his forehead.

“Knock that shit off!”  Fucci whacked him again, and then looked at Cliff.  “More trouble than you are worth.  You are more fucking trouble that you are worth!”  Fucci was walking back behind the counter with his gun still on the man.

Now that Fucci was moving, the man in black caught Cliff’s eye, and he made obvious motions down to the counter.  Cliff looked down.  On the counter was the Sixteen inch rocker blade that was used to slice pizzas.  Cliff had set it there after cutting the first of his getaway food.  What was this guy nodding at?  Was Cliff supposed to pick it up and do something with it?  Swing it wildly at Fucci’s throat?  What a laugh!  Or was it?  The blood loss from his toe was making him dizzy, he wasn’t sure he even had the strength to pick up the blade.  Cliff was nine toes away from Neil on the floor.  What other choice did he have?  His eyes darted back to the blade.  Back to Fucci.  Back to the man.  He felt himself start to sway.  Purple lights began to shine in different parts of Cliff’s eyes as he teetered and then began his descent to the floor.

________________________________________

“Wake up!  Cliff!  That your name?  Get the fuck up man.”

A damp and frigid kitchen towel plopped on his face and pulled Cliff from his vault of unconsciousness.  He opened his eyes and realized he was exactly level with the floor tiles.  He sat up, familiar to his surroundings but uncertain as to what had gone on and why.  His eyes felt like loose pinballs in his head, rolling around, not able to focus on any one thing, or together for that matter.  The man in black was in front of the register, hobbling on his good foot while he emptied what little cash he found into his pockets.  When he saw Cliff was awake a smile, larger than necessary, spread across his face.

“What a fucking joker that guy ith!  Mr. tough guy went down fathter than your

mama’th pantieth at prom Cliffy.  Hey theeriuthly, theventy eight dollarth?  Whereth the retht of the money?”

His foot troubled him while Cliff struggled to get to a standing position, wondering where Fucci was.  Upright, he could see that Fucci was gagged with a dish towel and tied face down to the dough table.  His eyes were red and teary and he was looking at Cliff.

“I locked the door man.  I’m Joe.”  Man-in-black extended his hand.

Cliff didn’t return the greeting.  His head was pounding, and his foot was on fire.  Joe didn’t seem put off.  He went back to looking under the cash tray for more large bills.

“Cliff, all you got here ith like…maybe a hundred buckth with the change.  Artie thed we wath gonna get like a G for thith.”  He leaned over the counter and peered at Neil who was slumped in a pool of blood.  “Or I’m gonna get a G.  You gotta thafe or thomething?”

“What happened?”

“What?  Oh…you went down,” Joe tried to cover up his giggles with his right hand over his mouth.  “No offenth man.  You went down…fuckin pathed out cold.  I uthed the opportunity to break the bottle of red pepper on Don Juan Corlieone’th head over there.”  He started to get animated, acting out the entire sequence.  “He goeth down.  I jump the counter like thome kind of thuper from Brooklyn or whatever, rub that meth in hith eyeth real good till he can’t thee at all or whatever…fuck him up a little bit and bam.  There he ith like a Thunday Spethial, not talking like Billy Bad Ath no more either.  Oh, and then I made me an anchovy and olive.  Ith in the oven.  Hope you don’t mind.  Now uh…where’th the money?”

“There is no money,” Cliff said in a hoarse whisper as he carefully hobbled over to Fucci.

Joe looked like someone had belted him square in the back of the head with a two by four.

“Yo yo what the fuck you mean there’th no money?”

Cliff lowered himself down until his eyes were only inches apart from Fucci’s.  Joe had cut the extension cord from dough mixer and had him hog-tied.  There were red paper flakes all around his eyes.  It was like looking at an animal about to be put down.

Cliff stood and faced Joe squarely.

“I mean there’s no money.  There is no cash here.  The money in the register is all that there is.  We already got robbed once today.  There’s nothing here for you.”

“Wait, wait, fuckin wait a minute.  You do know that I am here to do you a favor, right?  You do know that me, and the dead guy on the floor, came here today, at a premium, to thteal your money, for you, to pay of your fucking debt to thome kingpin, right?

Cliff’s eyes shot to Fucci, who appeared to be listening.

“I know why you’re here.  What I’m saying is that there is no more money, so you’re no longer needed.  You need to get out of here.”

“Oh,” he nodded.  “I’m no longer needed.  I thee.  No longer needed…right.”

His eyes began to narrow and voice began to raise.  He was agitiated, Cliff thought.  Man in black began to pace.

“Is that tho?  No longer needed?  I’m here to get paid Cliff!  Not becuth I like you.  I don’t even fucking know you!  Tho while I appreciate what you’re thaying, appreciate thith: It ain’t fuck-in good enough!”  With that he shoved Cliff to the floor and turned his attention to Fucci.  “Ok Mr. I’m-tho-bad-I’m-tied-like-a-baby-cow-to-the-fuckin-table, what have you got for Jo Jo?  How about thith nithe ring?”

Though he couldn’t see, Cliff knew he meant the gold nugget lion’s head with the diamond eyes on Fucci’s left pinkie.  “Leave him alone,” Cliff said from the floor, meekly.

Joe mimicked him under his breath, continuing to rifle Fucci’s pockets, unffected.  “Leave him alone…leave him alone…fuckin puthy.”

“HE IS A FUCKING POLICE OFFICER!”  Cliff struggled to stand.

Joe stopped dead in his tracks.  Fucci’s eyes rose to meet his.

“You a cop?”

Fucci made no indication.  Joe picked up the floor length overcoat from the ground and padded it down.  The wallet fell out before he reached it, and his badge lay open, glittering under the halogen beam lighting.

“Oh fuck.”

“Oh fuck is right.  You better get out of here.”

While Cliff continued to try and ease himself up, Joe’s mind raced.

“No…fuck that.  Fuck that Cliffy.  We’ve got to take thith mother fucker down.  We’ve got to take him down, down Georgia Brown thtyle or elth we are in big-fucking-trouble.”

“I’m already in trouble,” Cliff winced.  “He doesn’t know you.  I don’t know you.  Your name is Joe, big deal.  Get out of here now and you’re free.  Don’t call me Cliffy.

From the table, Fucci’s eyes volley’d between the two as he listened to the pizza boy and the lisping gangster debate his fate.

“No fuck that.  He gothe down!  I get the ring and whatever he hath in hith pocketh…unleth ith a lot or whatever.  Ith not my fault there ain’t no money here!  You tholve your own money problemth fucko!”  He started to yank on Fucci’s pinkie ring.  Fucci grunted.  “Oh you got fat little fingerth don’t you?  Fuck!”  He turned to Cliff.  “Get that blade from the counter.”

Cliff’s eyes darted down to Fucci, who’s own eyes were widening.

“Joe!”  Cliff began.  “You can’t…”  He was interrupted with a THUD to the side of his head and Cliff was on the floor again with Joe above him, frantically tugging at Fucci’s pinkie finger.

“I came here to help you!  Now, you wanna help me?  Get my peetha out of the oven and bring me that fucking thlicer!”  As if he had a sudden afterthought, Joe slammed a thundering kick into Cliff’s stomach.  “Now!  Right fucking now puthy!”

Cliff crawled towards the counter sucking wind, trying not to throw up.  He thought of his foot as a wounded family member that he was nobly dragging to safety, somewhere.  It was the only way he could tolerate the pain.

At the oven, he pulled himself to a standing position, balancing on his left leg.  The blade was still on the cutting table, glistening under the lights.  No longer did he see tomato sauce garnishing the silver edges.  Cliff saw blood.  Coming out of the oven, was an even greater nightmare.  Joe’s pizza looked like a tray of Eskimo throw-up.  Anchovies were piled in the middle like a heap of shark bait while sauce had been spattered like spin art across the crust…not even covering it in some places.  Covering it all was at least a one pound blanket of bubbling mozzarella.

Joe had taken to a full dialogue with Fucci, even though the mighty gangster was gagged beyond being able to talk back.

“Fucking bad ath…not thuch a bad ath…I hate copth!  Why?  Becuth they thtink!  They thmell like…bacon!  Cliff?  Hurry up Cliff!  Hurry up!”

Fucci, it seemed, was in another place.  While Joe taunted him with his sputtering lisps, he kept his eyes on Cliff.  He’d busted up hundreds of guys like Joe, but the kid was different.  Fucci had put a bullet through his foot just minutes earlier, and the kid was at the end of his rope.  The kid worried him.  If he didn’t get free, the kid was going to end him.

“Cliff!”

“I’m dizzy,” was all Cliff could say.  He was dizzy, dizzy and out of ideas.  Mia knew where her husband was.  If Fucci didn’t walk out of Pizza Toscano, X would probably be walking in before too long.  Offing the crime boss would only mean more problems, Cliff thought.

“C’mon man, jutht thuck it up!  After thith we can go get a few beerths and  bandaidth for our feet!  But letsth get thith party over with!”

“Your pizza is burning.”

“Oh fuck thith!”  Joe grabbed the rocker blade himself and sat on Fucci’s back, calculating the best angle to take off the pinkie.

Fucci’s grunted when Joe landed on him.  He looked at Cliff and his eyes widened.

The heavy duty pliers bit down on ridge of the pan and Cliff heaved the pizza out of the oven and turned towards Joe.

“Do you think this is done yet?”

Without giving him time to respond, Cliff wrapped the anchovy and sausage pizza around Joe’s head.  The cheese cooked into his face like a hot epoxy.

“Aaahrg!”  Joe threw his hands to his head, not knowing what had happened, who had just turned the lights out on him.  Cliff swung the pan from high above his head and clanged him right in the nose, knocking him off Fucci and onto the floor.  Joe kept screaming as he pawed at his face and tried to pry away the cooking cheese from his skin.  One final smack with the pan sent him into la-la land.  It was a good thing, because the final whack had caused Cliff to lose his balance.  He spun himself into a circle and crashed onto the floor next to Joe.  Just beneath Fucci.  From his back, he looked straight up into the red coals that had become the gangster’s eyes, which seemed to say “Untie me kid.”

________________________________________

Three weeks later Cliff was just beginning to believe what the doctors had told while his eyes fixated on the morphine drips falling from the bag and making their way towards his body and speech; he didn’t have a big toe anymore.  Fucci had shot it clean off.  He needed a cane to walk, but hoped it wouldn’t be permanent.  Fucci told him he just needed to get used to balancing himself differently when he walked.  He said he’s seen that sort of thing hundreds of times.  Rolando said the same thing.

The cops had arrived just minutes after Cliff had called them from a payphone two blocks away from Pizza Toscano.  Fucci needed some alone time with Joe, and Cliff wanted them to have their time together.  When he returned to the restaurant, he met Strommer, twelve officers and detectives, dead Neil by the salad bar and Joe the lisper, slumped beside the dough mixer where his head had been twisted clean off his body.  They wanted to know what had happened, and so Cliff told them.

He told the whole truth, that there had, in fact, been three robbers.  It had been the one that got away that had all the money.  Cliff had done all he could.  He’d Shanghai’d one of the robbers when he wasn’t looking, stolen his gun and taken care of him and one of his partners.  Just before the third bad dude made it through the front door, Cliff had surprised him with a close shot that barely missed him and lodged in the door jam.  The cops found the 44 slug, just like he’d said.  Two out of three, not bad, they’d told him.  After all, Cliff wasn’t a marksman.  He was a pizza guy.  After about 30 minutes, they sent him off to the hospital.  It would be ok to talk more later, just get that toe taken care of.  Strommer had thanked him and made an indirect reference to insurance money covering the stolen funds and Cliff’s sacrifice for the business showing him that it may be time for a raise.  That was something they could talk about after Cliff took three weeks off…with pay.  Strommer beamed.  Cliff nodded, more winced.  All he could think about was the pain in his toe and the hope that he had relayed the story exactly as it was told to him by Fucci.

For saving his life, Fucci had allowed Cliff to work off his debt to him.  It wasn’t something he normally did, but all things considered, Cliff had really gone to bat for him.  Cliff still owed him 5,000 dollars.  That he made clear.  But he loosened the timeline and allowed Cliff to work the door for him at one of his after-hours clubs.  For free of course.  But what the hell.  At least he wasn’t dead.