Saturday, May 19, 2012

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Nearly this entire story came to me in a protracted dream. I got up and wrote it as fast as I could for fear it would escape into that cloudy region of forgotten dreams.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Rick had promised himself he wouldn’t jump into the first few hands. He was just going to take his time and feel the boys out, see what kind of games they played. After all, it wasn’t as though he had all kinds of money to invest. In fact, he’d had to borrow two hundred from their last-resort fund. But it was for a good cause, and he could feel in his bones he was going to win. Jenny needed the money. Baby needs new shoes, like a crapshooter enticing the dice.

“You in?”

“Yeah,” he said, throwing in a twenty.

According to the dealer, a young man with a baby-blond mustache and a gold ring in his left earlobe, the game was Three-Card Poison, and aces swung and it was high-low split. It was the first hand of the night, and although he still remembered his promise to go slow, he had to see the first two cards, even though the twenty dollar ante was more than he’d anticipated. He wouldn’t be able to make many antes with his meager starting bank.

There were nine of them there: Rick Stavyk and Bud Hanish, the two obvious outsiders, and seven college kids, all Delta Tau frat brothers according to the introduction he’d been given when he arrived. Rich kids who seemed to be well able to stand twenty dollar antes and thousand dollar losses. Not that Rick was that much older, only twenty-three, but in terms of toughing it out, he was a lifetime ahead of these apple-cheeked mama’s boys. And Bud Hanish was as old as most of their fathers. They were playing in one of the downstairs rooms of The Workout, a gym and recreation facility off Boylston in downtown Boston. Bud Hanish, his crew foreman, had told him the club was owned by the father of one of the college kids, and they played off and on through the winter, whenever the son decided he wanted some action. When Bud first told Rick about the game and the easy pickings, Rich had begged him to put in a word for him, to get him in, and Bud had reluctantly agreed to do it.

“Yeah, but how’d you stumble onto this goose with the golden eggs?” he’d asked Bud. “College frat boys hardly seem your type.” Bud explained that his and Rick’s employer at the warehouse was also the owner of The Workout, along with a lot of other enterprises in Boston. Bud had met the son one time when the boy was at the warehouse picking up some papers for his father. And the poker games followed when the son asked Bud if he’d like to sit in. But did, and he’d been there for the games ever since, winning nearly every time.

The cards came out, first round down and the next up. The dealer flipped Rick the ace of hearts, and when Rick pinched up the corner of his down card he felt that old familiar thrill every card player knows, back-to-back aces, the club ace looking back at him. Man, he thought, he was in for the duration. What happened to his wait-and-see plan? Well, hell, with aces up and down he couldn’t afford to wait. Three-Card Poison, as he understood it, was like three-card monte with variations. Three cards counted and all you did was total them, high and low totals each winning half the pot. Number cards counted their value, face cards were half a point, and aces were either one or eleven, or both if you wanted to go both ways. The bet was to the first kid left of the dealer. He threw in a twenty, which apparently was the bottom bet limit, and the next player, with the ace of spades showing, raised twenty. The raiser had a full head of very black hair, dark bushy eyebrows, and blue cheeks and chin. He looked like an iron-pumper with overdeveloped arms and shoulders, and he leaned over his cards and money like a dog marking his territory. The backs of his hands and fingers were covered with curly black hair, and it was impossible to overlook the diamond ring on his left pinkie. The stone had to be well over a caret, set in a wide gold band, and next to it on the ring finger, what must have been a Boston College ring.

“What’s the name again?” Bluebeard asked Rick.

“Stavyk, Rick Stavyk.”

“Well, hey, Rick Stavyk, my buddies call me Johnny the Juice, and I wanna know, Rickie Boy, you in or you out?”

“You and me with aces up, I guess I’m in,” he said, putting two twenties in the middle. The betting continued around the table. But Johnny the Juice kept staring at him and Rick was certain, after only the few minutes he’d been there, that he’d like to squeeze old Johnny and see what came out. Probably more seeds and pulp than juice. Cool it, he said to himself. You’re here for more important business than a fight with some wiseguy college boy.

Bud Hanish and two others dropped after the raise, leaving six in the game. The third card was another down card. Rick pinched the corner and there it was, the fourth ace, the ace of diamonds to go with his other two aces. So he had a cinch winner for high with thirty-three, and he felt the tension leave him with a slow exhalation. But he also had to consider the possibility of winning low, hogging he hand. The whole pot would be twice as nice as half. And though three was a very good number for low, it was no cinch. He looked around the table to see what kinds of cards were up. Two face cards, a three, a nine, Johnny’s ace and his ace.

“My bet, I guess,” Johnny said. “Make it forty.” The kid to his left folded and it was up to Rick.

“Sounds good,” he said, taking four twenties from his rapidly shrinking pile. “Make it eighty.” He’d started with two hundred and he was already into the game for a hundred and twenty. That left him dangerously close to empty. But three aces didn’t show up too often and he knew he’d better ride them while he had the chance.

The player to Rick’s left folded with a sigh, the two with face cards called, and it was back to Johnny.

“So, Rickie, you in love with that hand or what? You like it enough to see another raise? Let’s make it . . . eighty this time. You up to that, Rickie Boy?”

Rick threw in his last eighty, folded his hands in front of him, and smiled at Johnny. “Yeah, I guess I’m up to that, Johnny Boy.”

Johnny didn’t return the smile, and the look on his face said he didn’t much care for Rick’s echo. He pointed a finger at Rick and said, “Just what he ell you think you’re gonna do when the next bet comes around? I don’t see anything in fronta you. You gonna pull some green outta your ass, Rickie Boy? What?”

“He’s good for it, Johnny,” Bud said quietly. “I’ll cover him for whatever he’s short.” Bud had been observing the exchanges between the two, and he didn’t much like what he was seeing.

“Yeah, well that’s not how we do it in this game, Bud. You played here long enough to know that. You bring in some Polack dumbo musta broke his piggybank to sit in and he’s already outta money.”

Bud counted out three hundred from his stack and put it in front of Rick. “There, that should cover him for the rest of this hand. You satisfied, John?”

Johnny snorted, throwing his hands up, then shook his head in a gimme-a-break look of dismissal. “Okay, olay, let’s get on with it. I don’t wanna replace.”

Before the next round of betting, anyone who wanted to could replace one of his cards for one from the deck. Johnny had passed and Rick waved the dealer on. Both players with the face card up replaced one of their down cards. The one to the left of Rick looked at it and seemed pleased with what he saw. The other one threw his cards down in disgust and then pushed them into the middle. So, there were three of them left, and the bet was up to Rick.

“I’ll bet fifty,” he said, still not sure what he was going to do when it came time to declare if he was going high or low or both ways. If a player went both ways, he had to win or tie both ways. Lose either way and you lose both ends. And the kid with the face care up could very easily beat him for low. For that matter, Johnny could be going low with two face cards down.

Face Card called and it was up to Johnny. Johnny studied his down cards again, as though he’d forgotten what was there. He looked at Rick and smiled. “Raise a hundred,” he said, counting out bills and throwing them in the middle of the table. Then he leaned back and waited for Rick’s response.

What the hell, Rick thought, play it safe and take the cinch high and walk away smiling. But bump it as high as it would go first. “The same back, a hundred.” He threw in his two hundred, leaving him fifty of Bud’s loan left in front of him. Face care to the left of him frowned, then smiled in resignation and put his two hundred in the pot.

“Oh yeah, you really are a pain in the ass, aren’t you, Rickie Stavyk? Is that Rickie for Richard? Then that’s make you Rich. But you ain’t gonna be rich after this hand. Let’s see, I call your hundred and . . . raise it two. Maybe we can clean you both out in this one hand, both you and your old buddy Bud. You up for another hundred fifty cover, But? Cause that’s what he’s gonna need to see my bet.”

Bud Hanish looked at Johnny for a slow five count, like the boy was something he’d scraped off his shoe. Then he counted out a hundred and fifty dollars and pushed it over to Rick. Rick put it and the other fifty in the pot. Face Card muttered something and put his two hundred in, and the betting was over.

“Now we see what kinda stones you got, my polkavik friend,” Johnny needled. “That’s cojones in Spick. I don’t know what you call it in Polack. One coin for high, none of low, two coins for both ways. In the hand, then we open up together.” Johnny already had his fist clenched with his choice. Rick fished in his pocket for coins, and then, just because the satisfaction would be worth it to wipe the smugness from old Johnny boy’s face, he decided at that moment to go both ways. The comments about his ancestry were part of the reason for his decision. But if he lost, how in hell was he going to pay Bud the money he’d just loaned him? How in hell was he going to pay the doctor bills he and Jen were racking up. Too late now, he thought.

The three of them extended their hands on the table, fists closed. Then they opened them. Face Card’s hand was empty—going low; Johnny’s had one coin—going high; and Rick just stared at his two coins. He knew he had Johnny beat for high, but he had to beat Face Car for low or Johnny would win half the pot by default.

“All right,” the dealer instructed, “let’s see what everybody’s got. We got a lot more poker to play.”

Face Card turned over his cards, the jack and three of hearts for a total of four. Rick was a winner.

He turned the two down aces over, feeling such relief he could hardly contain a nervous laugh. “I’ve got three and thirty-three,” he said.

Johnny stared at the three aces like they couldn’t possibly be real. Then he leaned back and slowly tore his cards in half, then in quarters, then threw them over his shoulder. “Guess we need a new deck. That one wasn’t worth a Polish puke,” he said staring at Rick. “And I guess old Rickie boy can play for a while longer. But he better have enough cash in front of him next time he wants to call a bet, or he’s outta the game. You got that, Rick?”

Rick didn’t bother to answer, didn’t even look at him as he raked the pot toward him and began stacking the bills. He did a quick calculation while the next player was opening a new box of cards and shuffling. The ante and the first two rounds of bets must have totaled over a thousand. Then the last bet, with just the three of them, was . . . he added up the bets and raises . . . four-fifty apiece, making thirteen-fifty. Let’s say twenty-three hundred all together, two of his own and the four-fifty Bud had given him. That left him winning a bit over seventeen hundred. In one hand. He couldn’t believe it. Now if he could just nurse it for the rest of the night, or until he could get out of there without looking like he’d won and run. Seventeen hundred would go a long way toward those doctor bills.

He took from his winnings four hundreds and a fifty and slid them over to Bud Hanish, who took them without comment, just a look and an almost invisible smile for Rick.

And the game continued.

After two hours, he’d had time to notice how impatient most of the college boys wee, raising with losing hands, bluffing too often and too obviously, staying in hands with little or no chance of winning, drawing against the odds. And the worst of them was Johnny the Juice. He was so arrogantly certain of his poker ability, or maybe just certain he deserved to win, that he stayed in every pot, raised nearly every bet, especially when Rick was in the hand. It was the kind of play that made this goose so easy to pluck. Even with Rick’s vow to take it easy and stay out of most hands, he found he was winning slowly and steadily. By midnight he figured he was ahead about twenty-five hundred; by two he’d won over four thousand.

And Johnny was miserable. He’d been drinking one beer after another since they’d begun at ten, and four hours later he was living up to his nickname. He was juiced. And he was giving Rick both beer barrels—increasing sarcasm every time Rick won, darker and darker looks as cards were dealt and bets made. Rick ignored him as best he could, but he couldn’t help smiling at Johnny every time he won.

“Deal me out this hand,” Rick told the dealer, standing up and stretching. “I have to hit the head.”

“Me too,” Bud said with a yawn. “My bladder’s getting too small for these all-nighters. Or maybe I’m just getting too old. Thank god we don’t have to go to work tomorrow.”

Later, as they were standing together at the sinks, Bud said, “You’ve got to take it easy with Johnny.” He was bending over the sink, watching himself scrub his hands, not looking at Rick.

Rick looked puzzled. “Explain, Bud. Why should I take it easy? He looks to me like just another know-it-all begging to get his butt kicked. You mean I should worry about all those big muscles, how tough he is? What?”

“No, I mean he can hurt you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. You don’t know who he is, do you, Rick?”

Rick admitted he didn’t, and didn’t care.

“Well, he’s the son of the man we work for, Joe Jacuzzo. Maybe you’ve heard of Joe Jacuzzo, the guy who signs our checks? And I don’t mean Johnny can make trouble for you about your job at the warehouse. Joe Jacuzzo’s got more irons to worry about than you or me or the whole damn warehouse. He’s one fo the biggies in the Boston mob, not exactly a capo, but close enough. He owns this gym, he owns the warehouse where we work, he owns more stuff down on the docks than you could guess, and I’m sure he’s got one or both hands in every dirty racket in town. And if his little boy, pain in the ass that he is, puts in the bad word with daddy, you could have more trouble than you ever dreamed of.” Bud rubbed his jaw and looked in the mirror at his smoke-reddened eyes, then glanced at Rick next to him. “You capice, as they like to say in the family?”

Rick leaned on the sink, looking at Bud in disbelief. “You trying to tell me I’m involved in a scene from The Godfather? Come on, Bud. You don’t really believe all that Hollywood crap, do you?”

“Believe it, Rick. Or at least believe me when I tell you that kid out there can make trouble for you and Jen. Mob trouble. Just don’t push him, okay?”

Rick assured him he’d just sit there and be a good little boy, behave himself for the rest of the ight. No trouble, no pushing, just nursing his winnings to the end of the game.

But three hours later, by 5:00, the Juice was seething. He was no longer bullying the others with raises. Now he was playing automatically, throwing money in whenever it was his turn to call, drinking beer and staring at Rick, his chin down on his chest, staring with eyes half closed under thick black brows. Rick was aware of it and made it a point not to return the glares, just playing the night to conclusion until he could go home with his winnings. The game by then was down to five players. Bud left, with a warning nod for Rick, just before 4:00, and three of the collegians departed one by one in the next hour.

Just after 6:00 Johnny scraped back his chair, threw his cards on the table, and announced that the game was over. He was taking his toys and going home. One or two mild protests, but no one seemed too eager to continue the game, especially Rick, who was more than happy to fold the cash he’s won and put the satisfyingly thick wad of bills into a front pocket. Baby needs new shoes, baby gets new shoes, and more than one pair if Jen wanted. Five grand could buy a lotta shoes.

“Yeah,” Johnny said as he shrugged into his jacket, a black leather car coat, “we’re outta beer, I’m outta money, and about eight hours in the sack oughta fix me up fine. That psych paper can wait another day.” They were all moving toward the stairs when Johnny stopped. “You guys go on ahead,” he said to the other three. “I wanna talk to my old buddy Rickie here.” He put his arm around Rick’s shoulder and then locked Rick’s head in the crook of his arm, the mock friendly gesture of drunks and bullies.

Rick wanted to rip Johnny’s arm off and beat him with it, but he’d promised Bud he wouldn’t push and he wasn’t about to push now, not with all that money in his pocket. He could tolerate this creep for another few minutes.

They made their way up the stairs and along the hall toward the rear exit, Johnny just behind Rick.

“So, Rickie, what’re you gonna do with all that money, huh? Buy presents for all your Polack friends? Maybe some nice Hawaiian shirts. Or forty, fifty pounds of Polish sausage for a big Polack celebration of your good fortune.”

Oh yeah, Rick thought, sighing inside. Sorry, Bud but enough’s enough. “Look, you arrogant jerk,” he said, stopping just short of the exit and turning to Johnny. “I’ve had about all I’m gonna—“

“No, you look, puke head!” Johnny hissed as he pulled a gun from his jacket pocket and pressed it under Rick’s chin. “You must not know who the hell you’re dealing with here.” All signs of durnkenness were now gone, the words clear and precise, as cold as the gun barrel against the soft flesh just under Rick’s jawbone next to his left ear. “You come in here, to my game,” Johnny went on, “and you think you can just look down your nose at me and my friends. Sit there with that smug look and beginner’s luck and think you’re so hot, such a good goddamn player. Well, you’re not, and just to prove it, see, I’m gonna show you just how much a loser you really are. Just a dumb freakin’ Polack loser?” He was nearly screaming by the end of his tirade and close enough to Rick’s face that Rick could smell the beer stink of his breath, felt the spray of spittle on Rick’s cheek. And Johnny was using the gun barrel for emphasis, grinding it into his neck.

“Gimme the money!” he demanded, stepping away from Rick and leveling the gun at him. “The money!” Left hand out, palm up.

Rick numbly reached in his front pocket and pulled out the wad of bills, placed it in the upraised palm.

“See, a freakin’ loser!” and then Johnny swung from the side, gun and fist smashing Rick along the jaw and ear, knocking him to the floor. Johnny stuffed the money in one jacket pocket, the gun in the other, then grabbed Rick by the back of his collar and dragged him to the exit door. He punched the bar to open the door and pulled Rick outside into the alley behind the gym, then dropped him face down. He sneered at Rick as Rick lay there unmoving, then stepped over him and went around the corner of the building to his car in the east parking lot.

Rick lay there with his eyes shut, feeling the cool asphalt under his cheek, smelling the dry dust of the alleyway close to his face. The sun had not yet come up, but the day was beginning to lighten, still too early for anyone to be up and around, still just dark enough that if there had been anyone around he might not have noticed someone lying in the alley.

When the fuzziness began to clear, he pushed himself up to his hands and got to his feet, swaying a bit as he stood. He touched his jaw and looked at the blood on his hand from where the gunsight had cut him. And he felt the bloom of anger in his stomach. Did that arrogant bastard really think he could get away with it? Pulling a gun and taking his money, smashing his head, rubbing his nose in his ancestry? Even if he was the son of Joe Jacuzzo? Not on your life. And certainly on Rick Stavyk’s life.

He went to his pickup and took out the .22 target pistol he kept in the glove compartment, loaded it from the box he kept there also, got in the driver’s side, and went to look for the home of Joe Jacuzzo, the Boston mobster, and his son Johnny the Juice.

* * *

The sun was up by the time he found it. No help from the phone book, obviously an unlisted number. But when he went to a late-night taxi stand and asked the driver where he could find Joe Jacuzzo’s house, no problem.

“Hey, buddy,” the driver said when he got a good look at Rick’s face, “ya musta had a helluva night. Looks like somebody pushed ya in a meat grinder—head-first.” He was more than happy to cooperate with anyone willing to talk to him in the wee small hours. “Yeah, that’s gotta be Johnny’s old man. I took Johnny home lotsa nights when he was out boozin’ or sniffin’ fer broads. He knows me. And his old man’s a bigshot. You don’t wanna screw wid him. But Johnny’s okay. Classy guy, an’ a real good tipper.” Apparently some of the night-life low-life knew Johnny the Juice, but not very well if they thought he was class.

It was 7:20 when he found the place. Sunday morning, a gray morning with fog rising from the bay behind the house. He parked across the street and examined it, a two-story colonial on sprawling grounds, at least ten acres, that led down to the bay. Rick was impressed. So this was how the Boston bigshots lived.

He got out of the pickup, crossed the street, and began a roundabout way toward the back. There were huge maples and oaks lining the street in front with more sprinkled randomly throughout the area, the trees just past their peak of fall colors, the lawn beneath them already covered with red and gold leaves. He circled well away from the house hoping the fog and the trees would hide him from anyone glancing out a window. He held the gun inside his shirt and it was cold against his stomach, the early morning air chilly on his face.

He made it around to the rear without being seen. Then, with the bay and the fog bright behind him, he approached the house cautiously. He kept expecting someone to see him and send up an alarm, but nothing happened, no alarms, no sudden shouts. He moved along a brick walkway bordered with petunias and marigolds, up to a Dutch door near the back of the garage, the top door windowed with tie-back floral curtains.

He checked his watch: 7:32.

He tried the door and found it unlocked, entered a spacious kitchen, and was just starting around a corner by the stove when he nearly ran into a man with a cup of coffee.

“Whu—?” the man uttered, and coffee splashed over the edge of the cup and onto the man’s hand. Rick pulled the gun from his shirt and pointed it a the man’s Adam’s apple. He was pleased to notice that his hand was steady. The man was small, maybe five-seven or -eight, with receding black hair just beginning to gray on the sides. He appeared to be in his late forties. He was wearing a red silk robe tied across his middle, and leather slippers.

“You want some coffee?” the man asked, moving around Rick and going to a pot on the stove. “Real Colombian. I mean, I get it direct. And Tony grinds the beans and makes it like coffee usta be made—egg shells, big pot on the stove. None a that Mr. Coffee crap for me.” He filled his cup and then took a cup from a hook and poured one for Rick. “Here, have some,” he said, extending it to Rick. “And put that peashooter away before you hurt somebody, probly yourself.”

Rick had to admire the man’s nerve. He took the cup and set it on the counter, but he didn’t put the gun away.

“So, whattaya want with me? Huh? You don’t look like no hit man I ever seen. And that’s a real beaut you got goin’ on your cheek.” He sipped coffee and went to a kitchen table and sat down. “Or maybe you’re a B-‘n-E man. That it? You breakin’ inta houses around here? Well, if that’s what you got in mind, you picked the wrong house. I’d suggest you just drink your coffee and then get the hell outta here.” He sipped from his cup, looking at Rick over the rim, smiling as he brought the cup down from his lips, but there was no smile in his eyes.

“If you’re Joe Jacuzzo, then I’ve got the right house. I’m looking for your son Johnny. He and I have some business.”

The man shook his head, as though he should have known that’s what it was all about. “Yeah,” he said with a tired sigh, “I’m Joe Jacuzzo. But who the hell’re you and what’s this business you got with Johnny? What the hell’s he been up to now?”

Rick explained as briefly as possible who he was and how he came to be there in the man’s house, looking for the man’s son, explained why he couldn’t let the son get away with what he had done. As he told it, Joe Jacuzzo listened attentively, interrupting him with brief questions to clarify one point or another, letting Rick tell it his own way at his own speed. At one point, when Rick explained how Johnny had taken the money from Rick, the father’s face grew grim and he gritted his teeth and muttered a word Rick didn’t understand.

“Okay,” he said when Rick was finished. He kept nodding his head as though he’d already agreed to something only he knew. “Let’s say I believe you. Whattaya think should be done about it?”

Just then the door into the dining room swung open and a giant of a man entered. Any surprise he may have registered when he saw the gun in Rick’s hand was lost in a face that wore a look of permanent surprise. His head was round as a balloon and his face bright red. He was well over six feet tall and must have weighed between three and four hundred pounds. He halted just past the door and with raised eyebrows looked a question at Joe Jacuzzo.

“Tony, come on over here. It’s all right. Me and the kid here are just comin’ to an understanding. He’s gonna put the gun away now, aren’t you, kid? Rick, you said? Well, Rick, this is Tony Gionetti, my valet and chauffeur, the guy who looks out for me, if you know what I mean. But he likes to be called Tony T, for Tony Tomato. You can see why that’s a good name for him. Tony, this here’s Rick Stavyk, and he and Johnny had a little misunderstanding last night. And we’re gonna get it all ironed out now. Isn’t that right, Rick?”

Rick just looked at the two of them, not sure where this was going. But he knew he’d better do as the man said and put the gun away, and trust that they really would get it all “ironed out.” He put the gun on the counter beside his cup.

“All right,” Joe Jacuzzo said, rubbing his hands together. “Tony, go roust the kid outta bed and get him down here. We’ll see what he has to say about all this.”

A few minutes later, Tony Tomato and Johnny the Juice arrived, Johnny in boxer shorts and t-shirt, shuffling in and rubbing his eyes, and Tony right behind him, sort of helping him along. Johnny stopped rubbing when he saw Rick. He glanced from Rick to his father and then back.

“What’s this punk doin’ here, Pop? What, I suppose whinin’ about his money. Well, he lost big in the game tonight and now he thinks he should get it back, like he really didn’t mean to play for real dough, like it was just for fun. He—”

The father held up his hand, palm toward the son, cutting him off.

“Just slow down, Johnny. According to Rick here, that’s not quite the way it went. I just thought we should get you two together and see if we couldn’t find out what really happened. You think we can do that, Johnny? See, Johnny, I know all about how you play poker. You’re a lousy poker player, I mean you really stink, and I’d haffta guess this guy’s story’s a lot likelier’n yours.”

Johnny started to protest, but his father stopped him with a pointed finger and a look of tired disgust.

“Now then, Johnny, before you tell me what really happened between you two, I’m gonna tell you again what I been tryin’ to tell you ever since you’re a little kid. You know, about the old ways, like honor and strength and loyalty. And about bein’ a man.” He paused, sighing deeply and wagging a finger at his son. “It’s called omerta in the old country, in Sicily, and not many of us still follow it. My old buddy Johnny Boy Gotti didn’t believe in it and look where it got him. He’s doin’ five or six lifes in the federal pen in Illinois. He’s a lousy gambler just like you, Johnny. Now, I want you to tell me what happened, and I want you to tell me the truth, like a man. You better, cause I can always tell when you’re lyin’.”

Johnny hesitated, looking first at his father, then Rick and Tony, then back to his father. Apparently he decided truth was better than whatever punishment his father would mete out if he lied and his father didn’t believe him.

So he told them what happened.

And Joe Jacuzzo again shook his head when Johnny came to the part about taking back the money at gunpoint.

“But, Pop,” Johnny protested when he saw the look his father gave him, “you used to tell me all the time how you and Gotti and the others did stuff just like that when you were comin’ up in the family.” He was about to continue when his father stopped him with open palm.

“Never me,” he growled. “I never did anything like what you did. I did stuff had to be done, yeah, but I always did it with honor, for the family, for the brothers. Never like you.” He looked at the floor, shaking his head. Then he looked up at his son. “Never like you.” He sighed, having made his decision. “So here’s what we gonna do. We gonna leave it up to fate, blind luck, to see what happens here. We sure as hell can’t leave it up to you and the way you play poker. You two are gonna play a hand of draw poker, blind—no bets, no head games, just five cards dealt face up, then the draw and it’s over. Double or nothin’, the five grand you took from this man plus another five grand I’m gonna put up. You win, we forget all about this, we just figure fate gave you another chance to learn what I been tryin’ to teach you all along. And you keep the five grand you took from Rick. Rick wins, he gets the ten grand, and you give up gamblin’ forever. You lose, and fate decides you need a lesson, somethin’ to show you about omerta and the old ways. So that’s what we gonna do—let fate decide it. And I don’t wanna hear another word about it, now or after. Tony, go get a deck.”

They played the hand at the kitchen table, Rick and Johnny sitting across from each other, Joe and Tony sitting opposite with Tony dealing.

Tony, his hands like bear paws but with surprising dexterity, shuffled the cards, pushed them over to Rick to cut, then dealt out the two hands, one card at a time beginning with Johnny,, until they both had five cards face up in front of them. Rick was dealt a pair of queens and three throwaways. Johnny got a heart, then a club, then three more hearts, none of which were paired with the club. They both threw their cards at the same time, Rick drawing to the queens and Johnny going for the fifth heart. Tony dealt first to Johnny. He flipped it over on the other cards, the jack of hearts for a heart flush.

“Oh yeah,” Johnny crowed, leaning back in his chair. “Let’s see you beat that, Rickie boy.”

Tony dealt three cards to Rick, first the two of clubs, then the queen of diamonds to give him three queens, then the two of spades to go with the other deuce. A full house. And Rick had won the ten thousand.

Nobody said a word for several moments. Rick leaned back in his chair, Johnny stared at Rick’s cards, Joe Jacuzzo stared at Johnny, and Tony Tomato just sat there looking from one to the other to the other.

Finally, Joe Jacuzzo pushed back his chair and got up from the table. He looked weary as he turned to Rick. “Why don’t you wait outside till we get the money together. Go look at the bay. I paid a lotta dough for that view. Go enjoy it and Tony’ll bring out the cash. It won’t take long.”

Rick felt foolish picking up the gun he’d brought with him. It seemed ridiculous now in light of what had happened, the way it had turned out. He made sure the safety was on before he put it in his pocket. Then he went out the door without looking back. He walked down to the water through we grass, and his teeth began chattering uncontrollably, clacking together not so much with chill as with the release of nervous tension. He hadn’t realized until then how tense he’d been for the last hour. What time was it? He checked his watch: 8:03. He couldn’t believe it, only thirty-one minutes. A lifetime.

The sun was well up over the horizon, and most of the fog had burned away, leaving the water of the bay calm and painfully bright with the sun’s rays. He walked out on a concrete dock. There were several boats tied up, two sporty runabouts and a forty-foot sailboat that looked like it could sleep a crew of at least six. He wondered how often Joe Jacuzzo got out on the high seas in that thing. He couldn’t picture any of them playing sailor or hoisting those sails. He could, however, see them all as pirates.

Just then he heard what sounded like the cry of a gull somewhere behind him, then an answering cry overhead. The day was in full swing, at least for the gulls. All he wanted to do was go home to Jen, show her the money, take a shower together, her scrubbing his back, him running his hands over her eight-month belly. And then to bed to make careful love, make careful plans for the money that would now take care of the doctor and hospital bills for the little Rick or Jennifer that would show up in another month. Life seemed just fine right hen. And he owed it all to Johnny the Juice and his poker game. Poker games, he corrected himself. After all, that last hand was a biggie.

He turned to the house when he heard Tony call his name, and he went to meet him. Tony handed him a brown paper bag, carefully folded and taped shut. “Mr. Jacuzzo says for you not to show up for work no more. He don’t ever wanna see you or even take a chance he’ll see you at the warehouse. You need a recommendation, he says, he’ll see you get a good one. But he don’t want you working for him no more.”

Rick took the bag. Ten thousand dollars felt nicely heavy. He wasn’t so surprised by his being fired. “Let go” might be more accurate. He’d already decided he and Jen could do better elsewhere. He didn’t want to work in a warehouse or be a dock worker forever, mindlessly bumping crates from truck to dock and back again.

He walked around the house and went to his pickup. Home was just twenty minutes away and he could hardly wait to get there. But first, he just had to see the money. Had to see what ten thousand dollars looked like all in one bundle.

He pulled the tape away from the top of the bag and unfolded it to the opening. There it was, the wad of bills he’d given to Johnny, mostly twenties and fifties and hundreds all crinkled from much handling, and below that a packet of bills all neat and new. He took it from the bag, fifty strapped hundreds. He’d never seen anything more delicious.

He looked in the bag again and noticed something else in the bottom—a flat aluminum foil package. He took it out of the bag and peeled back the foil, like opening a sandwich, and inside that was a thin towel wrapped around the object he now stared at.

He couldn’t believe what it was, and he just sat there stunned at Joe Jacuzzo’s bonus to him. Joe Jacuzzo’s idea of omerta. Rick was sure it was also sent as a warning. It was a hand, severed neatly at the wrist, a hand with curly black hair on the back and the fingers, a hand with a heavy golf band inset with a diamond that had to be well over a caret on the pinkie, and next to it on the ring finger, a class ring from Boston College.

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