Simple jobs have a way of becoming more complicated, but that’s why they pay you the big bucks, isn’t it?
The stench of stale urine made me want to vomit into the piss-warm beer I was drinking from a dirty glass. I tried to ignore it because I’d picked the stool at the end of the bar, close to the stinking washrooms, for a reason — I wanted to listen to the conversation next to me.
Normally, I sat at the other end of the bar, near the cash register, so that I could flirt with the waitresses when they placed their drink orders. But no time for that tonight, just official P.I. business, as my partner Diggs used to call it. I’d been tailing the man sitting beside me for the last few weeks. I couldn’t believe my luck when he led me right to one of my favorite downtown haunts, Sauce & Brews. S&B’s notorious for selling the cheapest hot wings in Buffalo — and considering that Buffalo is world-famous for its deep-fried chicken wings, that’s saying something. The place was as dark as a cavern though, so I figured the low utility bill probably balanced out any money lost on wing sales.
Actually, I really couldn’t have asked the guy, Laslo, to have his meeting at a better location. I mean, if he’d gone to some ritzy place like Chez Nous, I would’ve stuck out like a Leafs fan at a Sabres game, and he might have paid me more attention. But since I received a big “hey” from the bartender and friendly nods from several regulars, I blended right in with the S&B crowd.
Laslo didn’t even glance at me when I sat next to him. Of course, watching the entrance occupied his full attention anyway. Laslo looked about forty, with wispy black hair and more than a little gray. With his beer gut and haggard features, he would’ve fit right in at S&B. Only his three-piece suit stood out.
Just as the bartender placed a second shot of tequila and a beer chaser in front of me, a man in an expensive suit walked in, his bald head barely clearing the doorframe. He stopped and scanned the dark room, looking for Laslo. Either that, or he’d come in to ask directions to Chez Nous.
Sure enough, the suit walked directly to the empty stool next to Laslo. He looked around nervously when he sat. I ignored him, and pretended to be transfixed by the TV mounted on the corner wall of the well-stocked bar. The Sabres were playing — and winning — so most eyes in the place were on the game anyway.
After the new guy had relaxed a little with the help of a martini, I cocked my ear towards them, being careful not to make eye contact.
“…don’t understand why we can’t just do it here,” Laslo said.
“It’s not private enough,” the other man replied.
“I like crowds. Nothing personal, but I’m not going out back with you. I’ve got the sample in my hand — do you want it or not?”
“Very well — give it to me.”
Then, so fast and inconspicuously that I would have missed it if I hadn’t looked over just then, Laslo slipped Baldy an envelope.
“Okay, Conway, so when do I get my million?”
I nearly spit out my brew. Million? That was a lot of dough. I’d have to talk to my client about upping my fee.
“Never mention my name, nor discuss the amount in a public place.” I’d already returned my gaze to the TV screen, but I didn’t have to look at Conway to sense his irritation. “Now,” he said, “if this program performs the way you say it will — with no loopholes, a virtually impenetrable firewall — and if you deliver the entire, unencrypted program, then you will be appropriately rewarded.”
“When you give me the program, I’ll give you the access code for an off-shore bank account.”
“Okay. So, where and when do we meet next?”
Just then, a familiar, greasy teenager slunk past us into the men’s washroom. I’d actually been hoping to run into this punk for the last few days, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. The washroom door had stuck slightly open, but it squeaked loudly as the teenager pulled on it to get inside.
“Sounds good to me,” Laslo said.
Damn. I’d missed Conway’s answer.
Frustrated, I stood and headed into the can. The giant cat-litter stench worsened considerably inside, wreaking havoc on my nostrils. The source of the smell was obvious. S&B didn’t have urinals like most civilized places. Instead, some genius had thought it would be manly to have a long trough instead — like the ones I’ve seen in the barracks of old war forts. You could only fit three guys comfortably across, and often there were five or six guys pushing to get in — not exactly my idea of male bonding. At this moment, however, the washroom’s only occupant was the sleazeball I’d followed in.
A sleazeball drug-dealer who went by the street name K-Z, whatever that stood for. I’d heard his name from my twelve-year-old nephew, Jake Diggs. He’s not my nephew by blood, but he calls me uncle and his father’s the closest thing I ever had to a brother. And ever since his father died, Jake’s looked up to me like a big brother. When I’d seen him last, he’d been all shook up because one of his friends had gotten a “bad rush” from some crap K-Z had sold him. K-Z regularly pushed to kids. It made my stomach turn. I’d been hoping to have a few words with him ever since. And tonight was my lucky night. K-Z’s luck, on the other hand, was about to take a turn for the worse.
He looked up as I walked in, then looked away as he zipped up and stepped away from the trough.
“Yo,” I said. “Aren’t you K-Z?”
He turned toward me. “Yeah. What’s it to you?”
I pulled out a picture of my nephew, which I happened to be carrying for this specific purpose, and showed it to him. “You recognize this kid?”
“I see a lot of losers like this…I don’t know…perhaps you could give me somethin’ more, to jog my memory?” K-Z held out his hand expectantly.
“Sure thing,” I said. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a roll of coins. Ten bucks worth of quarters, but I had no intention of greasing his palm. I wrapped my fingers around the roll, and drove my fist into his kidneys.
He doubled over, coughing.
I gave him a minute to recover, then shoved the picture under his face and repeated my question.
He spat on it.
I grabbed the front of K-Z’s shirt, wiped off the spit, put the picture away, then drove my weighted fist into his left shoulder-blade.
He screamed in pain as he fell to his knees. Then he pulled a knife from his jacket pocket. I’d expected him to be carrying, so I was ready for it. As he jabbed the knife toward me, I grabbed his forearm and smashed his wrist onto the edge of the trough. I heard a bone snap and the knife flew into the yellow-stained back wall of the communal urinal. It slid down and landed with a small splash.
“I’m gonna mess you up!” K-Z wailed.
“No, what you’re going to do is stay the hell away from the kid in the picture. Better yet, find a new neighborhood, ‘cause if I ever see you again, I’m going to kill you.”
I backhanded him hard across the face.
K-Z spat a wad of blood onto my shoes. “I said, fuck you!”
“All that blow’s gone to your head, ‘cause you’re one stupid shithead.” I returned the coins to my pocket, grabbed him by the back of his belt, and shoved him headfirst over the edge of the trough. “Now, do I make you fish out your knife with your teeth, or are you going to get the hell out of Buffalo?”
With his nose inches away from so much piss and puke and God-knows-what-else, K-Z suddenly became more cooperative. “Sure, boss — whatever you say, man. Just let me up!”
I pulled him up and flung him backward toward one of the stalls. He stumbled as he knocked into the toilet. Its seat was up, so K-Z fell ass-first into the unflushed bowl.
I left him there to contemplate his future.
When I returned to the bar, the stools next to mine were empty. No worries though, I figured that the main exchange wouldn’t be going down until at least the next day. Besides, I knew where Laslo lived. I considered ordering some wings and watching the rest of the hockey game, but I figured I should make sure Laslo had gone home and then check in with my client. Plus, I didn’t feel like being in the middle of the scene K-Z was sure to make when he came out of the can.
Sure enough, when I pulled up in front of Laslo’s low-rise apartment, I could see him through the window. Watching TV alone.
After sitting in my car and watching him for more than an hour, I decided that Laslo had settled in for the night. I took out my cellphone and called my client. I gave him a full report, except that I left out the part about how I technically didn’t follow Laslo home. Oh, and I also left out the buyer’s name — just in case I needed leverage later. When I told him about the million-dollar price tag, my client flipped out.
I held the phone an inch away from my ear as he shouted, “A million! We’re talking about a program that’s going to revolutionize the electronic security of any and all computer systems online or off. That idiot’s going to make me lose billions! And for what? A lousy million!”
I figured that then would be as good a time as any to mention that I wanted him to triple my daily pay for me to continue.
“I’ll give you ten times as much — if you stop the exchange from taking place.”
“He’s at home right now. Why don’t you just come over here and demand that he return the program?”
“Because he probably has backup copies — he’s the one who developed the program in the first place. He thinks he owns it, but he knew when he signed on with us that everything developed at Disctech is Disctech property. No, the only way is to stop the exchange.”
“Even if I do, what’s to say he won’t find another buyer?”
“You’re right. I’m going to kill that bastard!” He paused, then asked, “Do you carry a gun?”
“Why? Are you expecting the exchange to get violent? I told you when you hired me that I don’t do volatile situations anymore. Not after what happened to my partner—” Diggs had been killed in the crossfire when a love triangle went bad.
“Hey, show some respect! You could only hope to be half the man he—.”
“Look, I didn’t mean anything by it—”
“I’m not risking my hide for what you’re paying me, even at three or ten times the usual rate.”
“Would you let me finish? Look, Laslo’s not the violent type. Before he pulled this stunt, I didn’t think he had any backbone at all. I don’t expect the exchange to get violent. What I was trying to say is that I want you to take care of this problem permanently.”
“Hold it, I don’t do that type of thing.” Well, maybe a drug-dealer or a rapist, but a white-collar criminal? No way. What kind of lowlife did he take me for?
“I’ll give you a million.”
I almost reconsidered. Almost. I’d promised Diggs on his deathbed that I’d look out for his kid, and I figured that putting Jake through college would be a big step toward insuring his future. But college tuition isn’t a good enough reason for murder. “No way,” I said. “I’ll tell you what. For that kind of money, I’ll rough him up, give him a good scare, but I ain’t no cold-blooded killer.” I really didn’t want to put a beating on Laslo either since I had no beef with him, but a mil is…well, it’s a damn good incentive is what it is.
“There’s too much at stake here. He has to be stopped. If you won’t take care of this, I’ll—”
A car door slammed in front of me and I missed the end of my client’s rant. I’d been so intent on the phone conversation — and, admittedly, more than a little distracted by the thought of getting my hands on a million bucks — that I’d looked away from Laslo’s window. I’d purposely parked behind his car earlier, and now I watched it speed off down the street.
“Shit, he’s leaving.”
“Follow him! What the hell do I pay you for?”
“Well, you’re not paying me to whack him, and I’m not budging until we’re clear on that.”
“Fine. Just stop the transaction, and I’ll reward you handsomely.”
“I’m glad we agree. I’ll call you later.”
I turned off the phone, and took off after Laslo. His car’s disgusting bright purple paintjob made it easy to spot. Laslo led me right back to Sauce & Brews. Shit. He’d be suspicious if he saw me walking in there again. I had to get in ahead of him, so he’d think that I’d never left.
I parked a few cars back from his, and ran to catch up to him.
He was about to pass a middle-aged woman talking on a public telephone. I had to think fast, so I’m not too proud of what I did.
The woman’s back was to us. I stepped over to her left side, stretched my arm around her back, and squeezed her right breast. She screamed and turned to Laslo as he walked past on her right. He heard her outcry and turned toward her.
The woman swung the handset at him and balled him out for being a pervert.
He didn’t even notice as I slipped past them and entered S&B.
The place was still packed, but the stools near the washroom were empty again. I quickly returned to my previous spot and ordered another beer.
Laslo looked a little frazzled when he came in a minute later. Apparently my presence didn’t surprise him, because he barely glanced at me, even though he was walking right toward me. He approached the stool he’d been sitting in before, but then walked right on by. To my surprise, he went straight out the back door. So much for refusing to do the exchange out back.
Damn. Now I needed an excuse for going out there.
I hurried over to a regular who I knew to be a chain-smoker and asked him for a butt. He obliged without hesitation, but gave me a quizzical look as he handed me the cigarette. I just shrugged. Fortunately, the game had him too distracted for him to consider asking me when I’d taken up smoking.
I walked out the back door, and stopped dead in my tracks.
Laslo lay on the ground, blood streaming from his chest. I didn’t see anyone around, so I crouched down and checked for a pulse. I found a weak beat. Better than nothing.
I took off Laslo’s tie to use as a makeshift bandage. With his entire shirt soaked in blood, it took me a moment to find the small wound. A bullet hole? Who the hell shot him? My client? But he didn’t know where we were. Did he?
“Ain’t this my lucky day.” Someone had stepped out from behind a dumpster.
It was K-Z. And he had a gun.
“You bastard,” I said. “What’d you shoot him for? Tired of killing people slowly with your chemicals?”
“Hey, man, it’s his own fault. I was in the middle of a transaction — yeah, that’s right, bitch, I’m still conducting business in your neighborhood…no one tells me where I can operate. So, anyway, this putz,” K-Z gestured at Laslo with his gun, “comes bursting into the middle of my deal. He startled me, so I popped him.” K-Z shrugged, then scowled. “Scared off my customer too, so he deserves what he got.”
I had a feeling that K-Z planned to pop me too, so I wanted to keep him talking until I could figure a way out. Regrettably, the only things that came to my mind were antagonistic. I noticed that K-Z’s right wrist sported a poorly wrapped tensor bandage — the kind you’d find in a cheap first aid kit. “I’m surprised you were able to shoot straight with your left hand,” I said.
“Fuck you. I’m ambidextrous.”
“Woo, big word — did you learn that before you flunked out of kindergarten?”
K-Z stepped toward me, his gun pointed at my head.
“I’ve had enough of your lip,” he said. “You won’t be able to shoot your mouth off once I shoot your mouth off…”
His finger tightened on the trigger.
I jumped up, pulling out my roll of coins as I did so, and threw the coins as hard as I could at his head.
He ducked, and I leapt for the door.
He fired and my gut burst into flames. The blow knocked me off my feet. I looked up and saw him walking toward me. He held the gun out at arm’s length, ready to finish me off.
Suddenly, the door swung open.
“Oh my Lord!” a familiar voice screamed.
K-Z fired once more — the bullet grazed the pavement inches from my head — then he ran off into the night.
The next day, the article in the paper referred to Conway and me simply as “bar patrons” — our names were never mentioned. And the article stated that Laslo lost his life for his wallet, which the police had later found in K-Z’s possession.
My nephew came to visit me in the hospital, and he brought me some beef jerky. He didn’t think I’d want the girly flowers or chocolates his mom had wanted to buy. What a kid. He asked me if he could do anything to help me get better, and I told him to go to college.
“But uncle,” he said, “I don’t have to think about that for years.”
I looked him hard in the eyes, and said, “It’s never too early to think about your future.”
When Jake left, his mother hung back. She touched my hand gently. “It’s good of you to want Jakey to go to college,” she said. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it.”
“Jake’s going to college,” I said. “And that’s a promise.”
She didn’t argue, just told me to get well, and followed after little Jake Diggs.
Later that day, my client came to visit me as well. He informed me that the police had told him that they hadn’t found any computer disks in Laslo’s possession. He assumed that K-Z had stolen it as well. I didn’t disagree. I handed him the private investigation report I had done on Laslo — the report that didn’t include Conway’s name. I felt I owed more of a debt to the man who’d saved my life than I did to my client. Besides, I don’t particularly like smarmy businessmen who try to coerce me into offing their disloyal employees.
My client didn’t bring flowers, but he did bring my paycheck. He wasn’t too happy with my report, but he paid me anyway — the last day at triple my original fee. Of course, he never realized just how much he actually paid me. After all, that bullet nearly ended my life, and I’d forewarned him about the high price for risking my life, so I didn’t feel guilty when I forgot to mention that I’d found a certain disk in Laslo’s pocket. I figured I was owed a little hazard pay…
Nick Andreychuk is a Derringer Award-winning mystery writer. His stories have appeared in magazines such as Austin Layman’s Crimestalker Casebook, Over My Dead Body! and Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and anthologies such as Techno Noir and Who Died in Here?
“Hazard Pay” was first published in Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (2001).