I was speeding toward the old part of town. Turn-of-the-century Victorian houses. The mansions that once separated the “good folks” from the people “on the other side of the tracks.”
There had been many battles fought at the Planning and Zoning Commission over whether to widen this road to four lanes. It was the main artery flowing to the business district downtown. But widening it meant cutting into the elongated front yards of the old castles. Bringing the wealthy inching ever closer to the common people, and the old money in town would never let that happen.
So, there was a one-mile strip of road different from any other in town. To appease those with the power to manipulate local government.
One battle the money-hoarders lost was over the replacement of the first stop light to hang in this old town. It marked the entry into their miracle mile. Out with the old relic having the character of a rustic chandelier and in with the new three-eyed monster.
The one I just barreled through at the strike of noon.
Frank, my friend who worked in HR, nervously looked over at me from the passenger seat. “You realize you just ran that red light, don’t you?”
Frank was especially nervous because he knew what I was carrying.
I laughed wildly, “Don’t worry Frank, I’m making the rules today!”
About a month and a half had gone by since the big cocaine heist, and there was still plenty of that bottled snow to numb our senses. While I may have been a bit reckless on the streets, I had generally grown increasingly cautious, perhaps paranoid, with my interpersonal relationships. I had circled my wagons and kept tight-lipped about our fortune. But not Mike.
Mike was enjoying his new-found fame.
As word got out, he became the flame drawing in the months. All of those fair-weather friends living vicariously through our stories and hanging around for some free blow – the quality of which they’d never seen before.
It seemed there was an ever-growing number of strangers lounging in our apartment and a never-ending invitation to someone else’s party. This rotating cast of characters ranged from newbie medical students living in the upscale, east-side apartments to the dregs from the streets of the west-side of town.
And Mike was getting more emboldened. No rules applied to him. He began with petty thefts targeting the unwary at the local bars.
Once the innocent hit the dance floors, he hit them. Snatching purses, jackets, any item left unattended in those dark, smoky rooms. And for no reason at all. He didn’t need this burgeoning collection of trifling merchandise. He just grabbed it because he could. He liked the thrill of the hunt. Most of it ended up in the garbage later.
He became less discriminating in his choice of associates too. Now, unwittingly, he was stacking the dominoes. And they spiraled out in multiple directions. If one fell, they’d all lead back to us.
I kept telling him to tone it down, reign it in, get a handle on it, before things got totally out of control. But no one was going to be his boss.
There were no maps to follow in this uncharted territory. No blueprints, no axioms, no guidance on living wildly in the moment.
It wasn’t like I was the master of restraint either.
So, the day Mike introduced me to Vince I was blind to all of the red flags. The warning signs. The fireworks that should have been exploding in my head.
My intuition was drugged silent.
Vince was supposedly a “big-time” dealer in this small-time town. Heroin mostly. He had climbed a step-stool with the big-time dealers in K.C. and Chicago. His ambition was to be a big-boy, reach their ladder and climb with them. Somewhere. He earned their trust by paying them back promptly. At least to begin with.
Those guys were serious. No joking around. No smiles and howdy-dos. All business. They’d front Vince large quantities of drugs he couldn’t pay forward on and after Vince pushed ‘em, he’d reimburse, plus interest. No different than your hometown predatory payday loan store with usury rates of 30%.
Vince developed a problem common to the industry. He started out strictly as a dealer, but he became a user. And as his habit grew, he had to stomp on his supply more to try to make up the difference. Word was spreading that the quality of his product sucked. Sales dropped. He used more. The cycle spun.
And now Mike was asking me to lend this guy money to pay his rent.
“He’s just running a bit short this month Stearley. He’ll pay you back first of the month.”
“Sure Mike, but I do expect it back.”
It should have occurred to me how odd it was to be lending money for rent to a guy that was supposedly such a major player. And it was a lot of money back then. At least it was to me.
You guessed it, the first of the month passed. And when pressed for the money there was always an excuse. I was getting a bit impatient, and being high-strung on powerful accelerants wasn’t helping.
It seems Mike had also introduced Vince to Frank and they had become guitar buddies. And Vince, while “horsed-up” was spilling his woes to Frank. Frank learned that Vince was planning on skipping town. He was so far in debt to the big boys, and since he had shot up all his stash and had nothing left to sell, it might take a life to balance the score.
So, when Frank told Mike and I what was going on, Mike’s brain started churning.
“Ok, Frank, you keep up the intel, and when the time is right, Stearley and I will hit the place.”
“What the fuck are you talking about Mike? I asked.
“Come on, Stearley, how do you think you’ll ever get your money back?”
I didn’t really take it all that seriously. I wasn’t taking Mike very serious at all at that point in time. But to Mike, this was just a small reach beyond his petty theft. Another hunt. And he didn’t seem to be having trouble flipping on people he was befriending either.
One day the dark planets aligned.
It was my day off and after dropping Frank off at his place I turned around to go pick up Mike. We were headed down to the river for some plinking. I had my .357 and he had his .45 semi-auto.
It was a gorgeous Spring day. Couldn’t have been better for some outdoor sports. Add a little jet fuel and we were flying. We ran into a couple of women hiking that we had met at one of the many parties we crashed and we had a little impromptu party of our own as the river wistfully flowed by. That turbid, muddy water. Murmuring to us. Earthy-sweet. Hypnotically shimmering in the sun’s glare . . .
The hour hand on the clock had spun while we were in the water’s trace and we awoke realizing we better head home now that the sun had begun to set. Before we left, though, we made a date with the ladies. We’d meet them at the bar later.
The phone was ringing as we entered our apartment and Mike answered. His look turned serious.
“That was Frank. Vince is bugging out tonight. If you want your cash, we’re going to have to do something now.”
“Give Vince a call, Mike. See what’s up.”
Mike dialed the number and I heard him say, “Vince?” Mike slowly hung up the phone as he turned to me.
“Something’s wrong, that wasn’t Vince who picked up and whoever it was said Vince wasn’t home.”
“What do you think is up Mike?”
Mike looked a bit panicked. “Whatever it is, it’s not good, bring your pistol. Let’s go!”
There wasn’t much thinking going on at this point. Just reflexive action. Re-loaded, tucked the guns in our belts, and headed for the car.
Vince’s rental was a short distance from that stop light I had run earlier in the day. When we arrived, there was another car in the driveway. Illinois plates. We knocked. And we waited. And waited. Darkness surrounded us.
It was a long time before Vince answered. We tried not to stare at his red and bruised face as he suggested we come back later.
“Come on Vince, we’ll just be a minute,” Mike said as he pushed past him and walked into the living room. Vince and I slowly followed.
I kept back towards the entryway as Mike helped himself to a seat. Two somewhat haggard looking guys stood on the far side of the room. Electricity filled the air. The tension grew with the prolonged silence. Finally, Mike spoke first.
“How’s it going?” Heads nodded. “Who are you guys?
The biggest of the two started to approach Mike, “Yeah, well who in the hell are you?”
The other mobster and I faced off, silently. Eyes locked.
Mike threw back his jacket revealing his pistol. “We’re just a couple of guys on our way to a pistol shooting contest, how about you?”
At that point, I reached to the back of my pants and put my hand on my revolver, suddenly aware that we weren’t in play mode anymore. I hadn’t been serious about anything for a good couple of months, was high as a kite, and my heart was racing. What had we just walked in to? Where had I let Mike lead me?
Expressions switched, us jovial and them serious, to them scared and us serious. Magic mirrors. Distorted grimaces. They decided to excuse themselves.
The big one turned to Vince, “We’ll be back.” He shoved Vince down onto the couch, picked Vince’s car keys up off the coffee table and added, “You won’t be going anywhere soon, will you now?”
It was like a big balloon deflated when they left. The tension eased. Flowed from my shoulders like that lazy river I sat by this afternoon. I took a seat.
“So what’s up Vince?” Mike knew without asking. The boys from up north had come to collect.
“Listen guys, I’m glad you showed up when you did, but things may be even worse now.”
“You leaving town, Vince?” I asked. “Without paying me back.”
“Look, I owe those guys a lot more than I owe you. I’ve got to pay them first. I need to get my car back, and I think I know how to make it all right. Why don’t you meet me back here in a couple of hours? I’ll have your cash by then too.”
I knew there was nothing left to do here and I was thrilled nothing more had gone down with the boys from up north. “That’s fine Vince,” I said. “We’ll see you then.”
Mike started to read Vince the riot act, but I motioned to him to follow me. He protested as we walked to my car, but I cut him off. “Just what do you think we can do?” After his silence, I added, “Right.”
As we drove off, we saw Vince walking down the street, headed towards downtown. Mike looked at me. “You know he’s not going to meet us. He has no intention of paying you anything. Let’s double back and take what’s yours. We’ll make it right, right now.”
Foolishly, I turned the car around. And as I was backing into Vince’s now empty driveway, I remembered what I had jokingly told Frank earlier, I was making the rules today . . .
To be continued . . .
Photo: That lazy river. Oh, how I wish I had stayed at that lazy river that day.
Prior Chapters: You can find the first four chapters of this story here: