Reprinted from THUGLIT
Most of the time, clients call me on the phone. This one sent a young punk with a blonde faux-hawk and a white linen suit to the coffee shop where I always take my morning espresso and croissant. The punk framed the meeting as a request, but he let his jacket fall open so I could see the silver pistol dangling from his shoulder holster like a steel tumor. He guided me to a gray Rolls-Royce parked around the corner, where a driver in a baggy uniform grunted when I offered him a smile.
Because I had never ridden in a Rolls before, I refrained from drawing my Hellcat .380 from its ankle holster and excusing myself from the situation. “Where we headed?” I asked, fondling the backseat's plush leather.
“Cable Beach,” the punk said, reaching up to adjust his collar. His sleeve fell away from his wrist, revealing a tattooed skeleton, its bony hands strumming a banjo. He didn't look like the sort of heavy you usually found around these parts.
The ride was swanky, too, except I didn’t enjoy it at all. After two blocks we halted at an intersection, blocked by a jazz funeral clashing its way toward the cemetery. The driver threw the Rolls into reverse, but not before slamming on the horn. I cringed at how the mourners spun on us, startled, as the coffin on their shoulders tilted at a perilous angle. I've always believed that if you anger the spirits, they will capsize your life. That superstitious part of me blames everything that happened later—the fire, the bodies, the thing with the severed head—on that honking.
The mansion looked like a kid's toy on steroids, a jumble of brightly colored blocks balanced on the edge of a cliff overlooking the beach. The punk ushered me onto the concrete patio, where a ruddy man in a faded Motörhead t-shirt leaned against the glass railing.
“My name's Clive Stevens,” he said, offering a ring-studded hand to shake. “You smoke?”
“I bet it’s a ‘yes’ for some of Castro's finest.” Reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, Clive drew a leather cigar case and opened it, revealing a trio of stubby Cohibas. “Thanks for coming all the way down here. I assure you it'll be worth your while.”
I took a cigar. “Yacht?”
“The boat in question. Is it your yacht? You seem like a yacht kind of guy, with the Rolls and all.”
Shaking his head, he drew a silver lighter and sparked it to life. “Cargo vessel,” he said. “I'm part-owner. I need it anchored off the coast here in ten days.”
I bathed the tip of my cigar in blue fire. “And where is it now?”
He lit his stogie. “Cuba, outside Havana. Someone paid the crew to walk away from the boat. Harbormaster’s charging an insane fee to release it.”
“Have your lawyer fly in,” I said. “Find the right official, get law enforcement involved if you have to. You don’t need someone like me for a squeeze-and-release job.”
“I can't do that.”
I glanced through the floor-to-ceiling windows that separated the patio from the interior of the house, noting the framed gold records on the living room wall, the fancy guitar on the stand beside the expensive leather couch. I wanted to ask what he did in the music industry, after he answered my most pressing question: “What’s the cargo?”
“Coffee beans,” he said, looking at the ocean. “Wood for furniture, some other goods.”
I snorted. “Oh, come on. You want my services, what’s the real load? You’re shipping explosives, meth precursor, that's your business, but I need to know if I’m boarding a floating bomb.”
He shrugged. “No explosives, no chemicals. It's not a danger to you. Beyond that, you can't ask.”
That made it drugs. And whatever my personal qualms about freeing controlled substances to travel from point A to B, I had six figures’ worth of debt I needed to erase. “You won't tell, it'll cost you extra. Hazard pay. I'm guessing you tried other repo guys before me?”
“I won't lie, my first call was Dennis Smith in New Orleans. Wasn’t willing to do what it took, if it came to that.”
“You mean violence.”
“He said you’ve broken some heads. I need someone who can do that, should it prove necessary. This cargo is valuable.”
“I never hurt anybody who didn't have it coming.” I heard a foot scrape on the concrete behind me, turned to see the punk holding out a cheap phone. I asked him: “What’re you trying to give me?”
“Pre-paid,” the punk said. “The number in the contacts will reach us. You should head to Cuba now.”
“Hold on, shorty. I haven’t said yes to the gig.”
The punk did that thing with his jacket again, sweeping it back to show off the gun. In retrospect, throwing him over the railing would have saved me a lot of trouble. Instead I decided to play nice. Jamming the burning tip of my cigar into his knuckles made him drop the phone and yelp. Before he could recover enough to do something stupid, I darted a hand into his jacket, snatched his pistol, and tossed it into the ocean.
Clive burst into wheezy laughter. “Man,” he said, clapping like a seal, “I should pay you to be my bodyguard instead.”
“Pick it up,” I told the punk, nudging the phone with my toe.
The punk stood there, trembling with rage.
“You'll have to excuse my associate here,” Clive said, sounding tired. “He’s more used to working the door at concerts than dealing with professionals. Which is why he’s going to stop this bigger-balls shit and give you that phone.”
Bending over, the punk retrieved the phone and handed it to me, his eyes burning. He would have killed me right then, with his bare hands, if I’d afforded him the opportunity. I slipped the device into my pocket and turned to Clive. “I'll think about it,” I said, “and give you a call. By the way, what sort of music you produce?”
He flashed a tight smile. “Mostly pop, for my sins. But I'm ninety-percent retired. Don’t leave me hanging about the boat, okay?”
Neither of them offered to escort me out. As I descended the front steps, the driver stepped to the curb and opened the rear door of the Rolls, but I declined his silent proposal. A walk along the beach would give me time to think about how I could make some money without ending up in a Cuban jail, or buried in a ditch with a bullet in my skull.
Some boat-repo folks prefer stealth. They offer a case of cheap rum to the marina guards, wait until everybody’s sloshed, swim out to the client's boat, and cut the anchor chains. With a little luck, they’re ten miles into international waters before anyone sobers up.
I never liked the idea of playing James Bond in a harbor full of sharks. My favorite repo trick is dressing in a customs-official uniform and arguing my way onto the target vessel. If there are still passengers or guards onboard after castoff, I offer them a choice: hop into the lifeboat for a quick float to land, or stay quiet until we reach our destination. In order to keep disagreements to a minimum, everybody in my crew carries a gun.
After my walk, I met up at my preferred tourist trap with Limonov, my second-in-command for the past ten years. He sat at a picnic bench in the back, fifty empty shot glasses stacked in front of him, two frat-boys snoring loudly on the concrete at his feet. “They challenged me to a drinking contest,” he said, seemingly stone-cold sober, as I took a seat across from him. “Looks like I won a hundred bucks.”
“How many shots did you down?” I asked, astounded at the city of glasses.
“Of vodka? None. I had Shirley pour me water.” He nodded at the nearby waitress. “Those poor bastards on the floor beside you? I think they did perhaps twenty-five each.”
“And during breakfast, no less. I'm impressed,” I said. “I got a potential job for us.”
When I finished spinning my tale, Limonov leaned back, hands folded over his substantial gut. “You think the cargo’s still there?” he asked.
I shrugged. “Less likely by the minute. You know a boat wasn’t stripped down in a week?”
“So it’s a setup. Say we head down there, cut this bad boat loose, there's no cargo onboard? Clive tells his business partners we stole the goods, covers his ass.”
“And whoever Clive’s working with, they won’t care who took the cargo,” I said, after downing a stray shot left untouched. Although I'm no fan of drinking before noon, the alcohol soothed my humming nerves. “I bet they’re not in the business of hearing all sides out, you know? Clive blames us for this, they kill us, but they also kill Clive. And not cleanly, no sir. They’ll make him eat his own nuts like oysters.”
Limonov guffawed. “Thanks for that wonderful mental image.”
I found another stray shot. Down the hatch. Screw it. “Worst part is, Clive is such a tool, he knows that’s exactly what'll happen, but he’s hoping against hope it’ll work out. Like some little kid believing in fairies.”
“So we walk away,” Limonov said. “It happens. They can't all be winners.”
“Hold up now. Are you allergic to cash?”
“Why you always have to get cute like this?”
I chuckled. “Because if the coke or whatever’s still there, Clive will pay us a lot of money to get the boat back. Especially if we reopen negotiations en-route. Even if there’s just an outside chance, I say it’s worth checking into. We’ll just go in quietly.”
“The last time we messed around with a drug shipment, I got a bullet in my shoulder.”
“And how many times did you get laid with that scar? ‘Hey baby, want to see where a nine-millimeter hit me?’ You ought to pay me for that.”
“Whatever.” Leaning over, Limonov pulled a scuffed billfold from the back pocket of the nearest frat boy and extracted five crisp twenties. Placed the wallet back. Stood. “This joint is officially tapped out. Let me buy you lunch at the Lobster Shack, you can tell me about whatever half-assed plan you’re cooking up.”
The flight from the Bahamas to Cuba is a short one. Five hours after phoning Clive and agreeing to free his boat later in the week, Limonov and I stood at the curb of the Malecón, the road that separates the ocean from Havana's crumbling beauty, negotiating with a couple of teenagers for a ride in their cherry-red '59 Chevy.
Another one of our merry crew, Marie, stayed behind in Nassau to watch Clive. An hour after my phone call, the punk in the linen suit left the mansion in the Rolls, headed for the airport. Marie lost him at the security checkpoint, but I had a good idea where he was headed.
There were other reasons to feel anxious. Waiting to board our Cubana flight, I downloaded a trove of Clive-related articles to my phone. The man had made a considerable fortune producing a rock band called the Dead Wakes. There was just one problem: the Dead Wakes released their last album five years ago. Since then, Clive had gone through a divorce, a lengthy stint in rehab, and a couple of arrests for drunk driving. Nothing like a desperate man to make things a little more exciting.
Well, you signed up for this, dude.
Indeed. I was a desperate man, myself.
“How much time you buy us?” Limonov asked. Behind him, one of the teenagers opened the Chevy's hood and leaned in, banging on the engine with his fists until it kicked to life, the tailpipe farting black smoke.
“A lot. I told Clive we wouldn’t get here until tomorrow,” I said, climbing into the backseat with my duffel. The perky flunkies at José Martí Airport scan your bags when you enter the country, just in case you're trying to import American imperialism, which makes it difficult to carry in my favorite tools, not to mention my guns.
Difficult, but not impossible.
The port was a standard-issue Caribbean shipping hub: a maze of gantries and massive cargo vessels, along with a few rusted fishing trawlers. Limonov and I had dressed in our finest suits, with fake business cards in our pockets that announced we were buyers in the market for a boat. The harbormaster, likely the same prick who told Clive that he needed to pay up or have his boat chopped to pieces, met us at the gate.
“Are you the men who called?” he asked in Spanish.
“We are,” said Limonov, in his perfect español. “We have an auction coming up. Some clients looking for cargo vessels.”
“Excellent. We have a good one, just came in.” He pointed down the pier, at a small container ship with no name on its freshly painted hull.
As the harbormaster led us on a tour of the upper deck, I excused myself to hit the lavatory. Aside from the new paint job, the boat's exterior was ill-kept, and the inside was worse—from the rusty bulkheads to the fraying carpets. I found three men in the galley, and wordlessly peeled off some American twenties into their hands before heading below. As I headed down to the engine room, I pulled a lighter from my pocket to brighten my way through the dim, stinking space.
You can paint a vessel as many times as you want, but even the most experienced boatjackers sometimes forget one crucial detail: the serial number on the engine, which matched the one that Clive had recited to me over the phone. With that settled, I climbed to the cargo level, weaving past shrink-wrapped pallets to reach the drums lining the inside hull. On the way I retrieved a pinch-bar, which I used to pry the lid off a random drum, discovering it filled with green, unroasted coffee beans. I sank an arm into the beans and found a bundle the size of a football, mummified in duct-tape.
Nipping the edge of the bundle with my teeth, I poured some white powder onto my finger, rubbed it on my gums. Tasted like baking soda. A second bundle yielded the same thing.
“Good going, Clive,” I said. At least if the Policía Nacional Revolucionaria nailed us during this little caper, I could offer to bake them a cake.
It also meant we needed to leave, right now. I ascended to sunlight, pausing to take off my shoe and bang the heel against a railing until it slid free, revealing a hollow into which I’d tucked a few pieces of steel before our plane left Nassau. Plucking free those bits, I reattached the heel and continued upwards, fumbling with my belt until the oversized buckle popped loose. The buckle folded neatly on a discreet hinge, forming a frame into which I popped the loose metal: hammer, trigger and firing pin.
From my suit pocket I drew my keys, attached to a lucky rabbit's foot. I unscrewed the brass cap from the fur and tipped a .45-caliber bullet into my palm, slipped it into the smooth chamber of my zip gun, and cocked the hammer back. The weapon had barely any accuracy but it looked intimidating, which is what usually counted. As always at moments like this, I crossed myself before heading through the hatch that led to the deck.
Limonov stood aft, nodding vaguely as the harbormaster tried to convince him that a cluster of slowly leaking oil barrels along the starboard side was nothing to worry about. I tapped my lieutenant on the elbow and said: “Baking soda.”
Eyebrows raised, he looked at the zip gun in my hand and nodded. “Can't all be winners.”
We turned and headed for the gangplank, leaving a confused harbormaster in our wake. Thirty minutes to get back to Havana, and we could sit tight for a day or two in El Floridita, sipping daiquiris before flying back to Nassau. I would call Clive and tell him that his seller had screwed him over, and that freeing the boat was officially his problem.
It was a good plan, ruined when the punk in the linen suit came up the gangplank, followed by four Cubans holding very big machetes.
The punk was startled when he saw me. “Why are you here?”
I pointed the zip gun at his chest. No sense in subtlety. “Clive send you?” I asked.
“Clive's dead,” the punk said. “He wasn't cut out for this work.”
“You kill him?”
The punk shrugged. An ocean breeze flared his jacket, revealing a 9mm pistol jammed in his waistband. That meant he had better connections down here than I did, if someone was willing to risk jail to lend him a firearm.
“Sorry you came all this way, kid,” I said, “but the ‘coke’ onboard is a lot of baking soda. Let me guess, this was Clive's first deal?”
The punk nodded, his face tense with worry, and I felt a little sorry for him. When you double-cross and kill your boss, you expect some sort of return. He stepped back, blocking the gangplank while his Cubans spread out, circling us just outside of blade-range. Beside me, Limonov picked up a length of heavy chain that someone had left on the deck and began twirling the end slowly, almost contemplatively. The harbormaster, deciding that cowardice beat valor any day of the week, disappeared below.
“We’re going to leave now,” I said. “Nobody wants to die today.”
He won’t use the gun, I thought, with his people standing so close to us.
I was wrong.
The punk thought he was the second coming of Doc Holliday. I read it too late in his eyes, just as his hand darted for his weapon. I squeezed the trigger of my zip gun, aiming for his center mass, and his shoulder spat red.
Screaming in rage and pain, the punk still managed to yank out his pistol and fire three wild shots in my direction. Two of those bullets holed the starboard drums that Limonov had examined with the harbormaster, and black oil spurted across the deck. That was bad, but not quite as bad as what happened next, when the punk’s third bullet tore out the throat of the Cuban standing to Limonov’s left.
The Cuban fell, gagging blood, his machete sparking off the oily metal at his feet.
The explosion turned the three other Cubans into burning scarecrows. Limonov was luckier. The force of the blast lifted him off his feet and into me, the two of us tumbling clear of the flames. I caught a glimpse of the punk airborne against the blue sky, his legs and arms flailing, his linen suit ablaze as he plunged into the ocean beyond the pier.
“You okay?” I yelled at Limonov, shaking my head in a futile effort to make my ears stop ringing.
Limonov looked pretty far from okay—his eyebrows were singed away, the hair on the left side of his head had been reduced to a pile of ash, and his beautiful suit was a smoking mess. Nonetheless he gave me a hearty thumbs-up before scrambling to his feet, retrieving one of the discarded knives as he checked the Cubans until he found one halfway alive.
“Where was he going after this?” Limonov asked in Spanish, pressing the knife lightly against the man's reddened throat. “Did he have a boat?”
“Airport,” the man wheezed.
“No.” Limonov pressed the knife down a little harder, scoring the flesh. “You expect me to believe he was that stupid?”
Meanwhile I knelt to the other men, checking their pockets for anything useful, finding nothing except some Cuban pesos and a few worthless IDs along with a plastic key-fob that might have belonged to a boat. We needed to leave right now.
With the knife biting into his skin, the burned Cuban reconsidered his options. “Go-fast boat,” he said. “Three kilometers west, the swamp, okay?”
“Crew?” Limonov said.
“Just us and the norteamericano.”
“Okay,” Limonov said, removing the knife. “But if you’re lying, we’ll find out.”
No way could we leave out of José Martí, not with our burned faces and scorched clothing. I waved the key-fob at Limonov and we ran down the gangplank and out of the harbor, finding the two boys standing beside their '59 Chevy, babbling in excitement as they pointed at the greasy black smoke curling toward the sun.
An ambulance and a police car passed us on the main road, neither slowing, and we made it to the swamp in good time. “Burn’s not as sexy as a bullet-hole,” said Limonov in the backseat, picking at the peeling skin on his hands.
“We're alive,” I replied, doing my best to keep my voice from trembling. Sure, I had jammed a few guns in faces over the years, and even beat down a couple folks in the course of repossessing a ship. But never had an operation gone so wrong. I thought again about the jazz funeral, the mourners frozen in shock, and my tingling skin curdled into gooseflesh.
It took three days to work our way back to Nassau, with a stopover in a Miami clinic so a friend could stitch us back together, followed by a visit to my tailor for some new duds. I had almost no money, because the punk had killed Clive before the latter could transfer funds into my account, but Limonov spotted me for the suits. The television in the tailor’s waiting room reported four dead Cubans in a mysterious explosion outside Havana, and I knew in my gut that the punk had survived his Evel Knievel routine over the harbor.
While Limonov headed to a bar to chat up some young lasses and down a few drinks, I stopped by a church for communion, followed by a voodoo storefront, where an old woman tapped my shoulders with a severed rooster claw before sprinkling me with blood. I figured that balanced my karma a little better.
Our feet had barely touched the ground in Nassau when my phone rang. “Are you okay?” Marie asked.
“Feeling a little barbequed,” I said. “Other than that, fine. You find the bodyguard?”
“Not yet, but he's definitely back here.”
“How do you know?”
“Shooting over the hill last night. The Coral Lounge, yeah? Young white guy walks in, his face all messed up, pops a bullet into the back of another man’s skull. Description sounded like your boy.”
“Who was the other man?”
“Cop who told me didn’t know, but said he was Latin. Sorry, that's all I got.”
“Do me a huge favor?” I said. “Watch Clive’s house tonight, from the beach side. I'll be there later.”
After I hung up, Limonov asked: “We going home?”
“Sure, after we make a stop.”
We parked the car in front of a beautiful colonnaded house on Baillou Hill Road, a stone's throw from the pink-walled Government House, and while Limonov smoked on the sidewalk, I knocked on the stately door half-hidden in greenery. The maid who answered guided me through spotless hallways to the rear patio, where I found Emmanuel sipping French-press coffee while perusing a copy of the New York Times Sunday edition.
“What can I do for you?” he asked without looking up.
Emmanuel had paid me four times over the years to retrieve boats with questionable cargo. One of those runs had taken place outside of Port-au-Prince, and I had earned a hefty bonus by fending off a couple of harbor pirates with a Kalashnikov until Limonov could pilot us away from the coast.
“Some guy got shot over the hill last night,” I said. “I was wondering if he was connected with you?”
Emmanuel lowered the paper so I could stare into his glacier-blue eyes. “Why are you wondering?”
“Because I think he was shot by someone who took a shot at me, too.”
Slapping the paper on the table, Emmanuel leaned back, lacing his hands behind his head. “The dead gentleman is an acquaintance of mine, yes. He hailed from Bogotá, where I understand he served as an intermediary for many important people.”
“You know if he did a deal with a guy named Clive? Record producer, lives over on Cable Beach?”
He smiled without an ounce of warmth. “Now you're asking questions you shouldn’t.”
I'll take that as a yes, I thought. “Clive’s bodyguard's the guy who tried to kill me,” I said. “Clive tried to do a deal, got in over his head. But I think you knew that.” Nodding my thanks, I turned and left. Midway to the car, I realized my hands were shaking a little. Never get involved in drugs again, I told myself. No matter how much you need the cash.
Marie patted the cool sand beside her. “Sit down, love,” she said, reaching into her designer handbag. “You ought to take a moment, look at the stars. They’ll make all your problems feel insignificant.”
The beach around us was empty, cold and bright in the moonlight. I remained standing as I craned my head upwards, studying the black mass of Clive’s mansion at the top of the cliff. “Any people, movement?”
“That’s you, all business as usual.” She sighed. “Nothing all night except that irritating noise. Hear it? It keeps fucking repeating.”
In the pause between waves I thought I caught the faintest hint of music, three jangling guitar notes followed by the thump of what might have been drums. “I hear something,” I said.
Marie's hand emerged from the bag with a .38 pistol. “Shall we go in? There's a gate down here, unlocked, and a whole lot of stairs going up.”
“Did you unlock it?”
“No, and I've been here since dusk. Seen nobody.”
“Stay here, cover my rear. If I yell for you, come up.”
“Playing action hero again?”
“If everything went the way I think it did,” I said, “someone else played action hero for us.” Drawing the pistol from my ankle holster, I walked over to the small iron gate in the base of the cliff, eased it open, and started up the wooden stairway cut into the porous rock. As I ascended, I heard that sound again, definitely music: twang-twang-twang…thump. Marie was right—it was irritating, a bad tune that threatened to elbow its way into my head and lodge there like a barnacle.
The stairs ended on the far edge of the patio, around the corner from where I had met Clive the other day. I paused for a moment at the top, listening for movement, but that damn twang-twang-twang…thump made it difficult to hear anything furtive. Screw it, I thought, coming fast around the house's blind angle.
My gun-sights found a giant at the railing, silhouetted against the deeper night, his shaven head faintly haloed by stars.
“Hello,” I said, my voice calm despite the adrenaline flooding my blood, my heart hammering against my ribs.
Plastic rustled as the giant shifted. He wore a one-piece coverall with a zipper up the front. A hazmat suit. “Hello,” he said, his voice soft, melodic.
He seemed unconcerned about my gun.
“Is the kid here?” I asked.
“Yes, but he’s indisposed,” the giant said. It was hard to discern his features in the dark, but I could see the starlight glistening on his bare hands, because they were wet.
I swallowed, wondering if my bullets would stop his planet-like mass, even if I fired the whole clip into his torso. “And who are you?”
“I often do contract work for individuals with a lot to lose, and a lot to spend. You know how that is. We're kindred souls, you and I.”
“If you say so.”
The enormous head dipped low, the face eaten by darkness. “What you’ll see inside might affect you in a deep way. Ordinarily I wouldn’t apologize for that, but I've been in a very self-reflective mood lately,” he said. “I want you to know that I’m not an animal. No matter how bad it seems, everything I did in there was calculated for a specific effect. To send a message as wide as possible. To speak to people who only understand one language.”
Nothing like a friendly chat with a lunatic. “Can I ask you something, no disrespect?”
“Why the fake coke? Why screw Clive over like that?”
“My client already has his own distribution channels, quite profitable. The hoax was a joke, a friendly way of dissuading an amateur from going where he did not belong. Of course, Clive's employee decided to take matters into his own hands. I apologize, but I really must go.”
With that, the giant turned and disappeared around the front of the house, leaving a smeared trail of footprints. Footprints with no treads, because he wore plastic covers over his size-15 boots.
My forehead prickling with sweat, I reached down and slipped my pistol back into its ankle holster. I could have walked away; I knew in my heart that the punk had died inside the house. But the first rule of my business is you need to double-check on everything, no matter how dangerous or stomach-churning.
Taking a deep breath, I stepped through the open glass door off the patio, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. Through the wide doorway on my left came that awful twang-twang-twang…thump, much louder now, along with a faint blue glow.
I walked that way.
Like all music producers, Clive had an impressive listening rig: a McIntosh turntable on its own mahogany sideboard, with the record platter and front panel lit up like a descending UFO. In its spooky light I could see the sleek tone-arm bumping against a thick, lumpy object placed at the center of a slowly spinning record. With each bump, the massive speakers at either end of the sideboard thumped hard, stretching my already-frayed nerves to the breaking point.
The thing atop the record spun another quarter-revolution, revealing blackened eyes, a squashed nose, lips crusted with dark blood.
The punk's head.
“Like I told your boss,” I said. “I wasn’t the right person for the job.”
As if in response, the record-needle tapped cooling flesh again, the speakers hissing loud with spirits.
Kolakowski is the author of "Love & Bullets," "Absolute
Unit," and other works of crime and terror. His shorter fiction
has also appeared in Dark Moon Digest, Thuglit, Shotgun Honey, and
various anthologies. He lives and writes in NYC.