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There’s nothing quite like a friend dropping in unexpectedly.
The boys looked a lot different since the last time I saw them. They should have; it’d been almost ten years. Reed was twelve now, sandy-haired, the first hint of his old man’s barrel chest beginning to show. Leo, eleven months younger, Irish twins, tall and rangy, his mother’s son in every way.
They took turns pushing each other on the swing set, then got a little more ballsy, jumping off of the swing at the top of its arc, crash-landing on their knees, laughing, doing it again. Fearless. Young. I must have been that way, once. I can’t remember.
I sat on a park bench, out in the open, watching, no fear of being spotted, nothing to hide. No dark glasses or hat, no newspaper to hide behind.
It’s not like anyone would ever mistake me for a pederast. Guys like that have a certain look, a stink about them. I celled for a bit with a guy like that my last trip downstate. I killed him in the shower with a spoon I palmed after dinner one night. Nobody blinked an eye.
Gwen showed up around five, a sweaty mess after a two mile jog around the park. Unlike her boys, she still looked the same. For her, the ten years had passed in a blink of an eye. Still tall, still athletic. Still beautiful, even with that long brown hair pulled up beneath a white ball cap.
She stood hunched over, hands on her knees, catching her breath. She stretched, then straightened to her full height. She reached up to her ears, yanked out her white earbuds, scanned the park the way a good mother does, searching for predators.
She turned her shoulders as she scanned a protective circle around the park, then stopped cold when she saw me sitting on the bench. She pushed her sunglasses down the bridge of her nose, giving those dark green eyes a better look at me.
I wasn’t sure she’d know who I was. Gwen may have looked almost exactly the same as that day a decade ago at Artie’s funeral, but I didn’t. 29 to 39 had been a long ten years for me. A little softer in the middle; a little bigger, maybe. I had grown my buzzcut out into something requiring a comb. Added a beard.
Across the park, Gwen’s eyes narrowed as her brain worked hard to place my face. I decided to help her out. I reached up to my right cheek, and traced the long white scar that my new beard couldn’t hide. I nodded.
Her eyes went a little tighter, then opened wide.
I gave her a small wave, lifting just the fingers of my left hand from the bench.
She raised a hand to her mouth. Quickly, but too slow to stop the scream.
Other folks in the park noticed me then, Gwen’s scream creating a scene. I took that as my cue to leave.
It was Reed who answered when I knocked a couple hours later.
“How ya doing, Reed,” I said, laying the Southern charm on thick. “I’m an old friend of your daddy.”
Reed tilted his head to the right, sizing me up. Without taking his eyes off me, he folded his beefy arms across his chest and leaned shoulder first into the doorframe. Nothing between us but the flimsy netting of a screen door, and the kid wasn’t afraid. Arthur would be proud.
“You were in the park,” he said finally.
“That’s right,” I said, no need to lie. “I was hoping to bump into your mom—any chance she’s here now?” I gave Reed my best smile.
He shrugged, using the movement in his shoulders to push off the doorframe. “Mom,” he called into the house. “That guy from the park is at the door—”
Gwen must have been in the kitchen—a dropped dish shattered on a hardwood floor somewhere inside. She recovered quickly. “Reed,” she called, her voice steady, betraying nothing. “Honey, come in here and stir this sauce.”
Reed disappeared down the hallway. I stood on the porch waiting for Gwen, taking a look around. Plantation-style home on a half-acre lot, front porch held up by thick white columns, tree-lined circular gravel drive. Gwen had done well for herself with Artie’s money.
“What the hell do you want, Ray?”
Like I said, Gwen recovered quickly. I turned around to see her in the open doorframe, the screen door flung wide open, daring me to come inside. Her face was as cold as steel, and twice as hard. A wild look, feral, a mother who would do anything to protect her children.
Even in that flour-caked apron, she took my breath away.
“What the hell do you want, Ray?”
The intensity in her voice surprised me. “Real nice place you got here, Gwen. A real nice—”
“The hell you want, Ray?” she repeated, the country girl she used to be slipping back into her words. She was in no mood for small talk.
“A real nice place, Gwendy. The new hubby know how you paid for all this?”
“He knows that—”
“—’cause I was kinda wondering myself. The whole thing has me wondering if Artie was doing that much better than the rest of us.”
“—’cause just looking around your place here, you’d think he might have been holding out on us.”
My flurry of interruptions left Gwen wary. She waited to see if I was done. I said nothing.
“—unless you got something going on the side, Gwendy. That would explain it, too, maybe. You always had a good head for—”
“Ray.” She said it with finality. Too bad. I could have done that all night. Time to shift gears.
“You know what I want, Gwen.”
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“Did you sell it? That would certainly explain all this.” I waved my hand in a giant circle.
“I didn’t sell anyth—”
“Was it Lucas? You sell it to him? He found you first? Beat me here?”
“I—I thought Lucas was dead.”
So did I—I was just fishing. Keeping her off-guard. “You thought I was dead, too.”
Her face told me my guess was right. She had thought that I was dead. That’s why she settled down, tried to put it all behind her.
“I haven’t seen Lucas,” she said quietly.
“So you still have it, then.”
“Jesus Christ, Ray! I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
I’ve known Gwen a long time. Longer than Artie did, even. I introduced them. She was lying.
I traced a finger down the white scar that ran the length of my right cheek, a gift from my old man thirty years ago. I turned my face slightly in that direction, so that the scar was in the center of her line of vision. I lowered my voice, forcing her to lean in a bit, closer to the scar, if she wanted to hear what I was saying. That move has worked wonders in the past on a whole lot of folks.
“That’s bullshit, Gwen. We both know it.”
Her mouth opened slightly, the beginnings of an answer. I reached in quickly and placed a finger across her lips to silence it.
“Let me tell you how this is going to work. I understand that you might not be able to put your hands on it right this second, so I’ll give you a couple of days. At which point there will be a transfer of ownership.”
She raised her eyebrows, like she was asking permission to speak. I removed my finger. Her voice was as soft as mine, but still strong.
“Why can’t you understand that—”
“—and if there is no transfer of ownership, then I’m sure that your respectable new husband would be very interested to know just how the pretty widow paid for the bed he’s sleeping in.”
“You don’t even know him,” she said, no conviction in the words, hoping she was wrong.
“A respectable citizen like that? The kind of guy that leaves his house each day at eight, heads downtown to work, that kind of guy? Works in Suite 681, something like that? A precious old thing—Myrna, maybe?—working the desk out front? That kind of guy? Brown bags a lunch, maybe, walks it across the street to that little park every—”
“All right,” she said, broken. “Stop it.”
I wasn’t finished. “Just seems to me that a respectable guy like that—and I think your husband just might be one of those guys—seems to me that a guy like that might have a real problem with the true nature of his new wife’s rather generous inheritance.”
I smiled, and let my voice rise to its normal volume. “If he knew.”
Gwen eyed me. I stared right back, not wanting to be the one who broke the stalemate. A full minute passed.
It was Reed that finally spoke. “Mom,” he yelled from the kitchen. “The sauce is ready.”
Gwen’s eyes never left mine. “Be there in a minute, honey,” she called over her shoulder. “Go ahead and turn the burner off.”
I gave Gwen the toothiest bumpkin smile I could manage, pouring all the thick drawl of my childhood into my words. “G’on and take care of your family, sweetheart. They gotta be mighty hungry, what with that long afternoon in the park and all.”
I showed her my back and moved down the steps, off the porch, hands shoved deep into the front pockets of my jeans. When I reached the driveway, I turned back to Gwen, who still hadn’t moved. “Take care of your family, Gwen,” I repeated. “Give me what’s mine.”
“Hey, Ray?” she said finally. “Go fuck yourself.”
I left her standing there, arms folded across her chest, and walked down the drive towards the street, smiling. This was going to be fun.
I figured I’d give Gwen a couple of days to come to her senses. I holed up in a run-down motel on the frontage road out by the interstate and spent my time watching game shows and Braves games.
Nine years. A long time that gets even longer when you only have one thought the entire time. But that one thought was the one thing that got me through my time downstate. For nine years, my every moment was consumed with what I was going to do when I got out, and what I was going to have to do to reclaim what was mine.
It’s easy to lose track of things when you’re inside. I got picked up the day after Artie’s funeral. I knew it was a probably a bad idea to go to the service, after the way things had gone down the week before, but I went anyway. I stayed on the outer edges of the gathering, far from the graveside, thinking I was being pretty discreet, but I guess the Feds were better. I never saw them, but they saw me. One plea bargain later, I was on The Farm, sharing a cell with a pederast.
Most of what you hear when you’re in the cut is of a second-hand nature. My first year inside, I heard that Lucas died. I got that playing basketball in the yard with some guy who had run a long con with him a while back in Oklahoma.
Not long after that, I got wind from the outside that people were saying that I was dead. I let that go, figuring it would do more to help than to hurt once I got out.
Then, about three years ago, a guy working in the library told me that Gwen had remarried—he had seen it in the paper. I had him clip the article for me, and that’s where I saw that she had married this insurance sales schlub named Larry.
The article also mentioned where the happy couple would be residing after the wedding, a pretty swank address on the east side of town. They weren’t paying the bills there on Larry’s salary, that much seemed pretty sure. It stood to reason that Gwen had not kept up Artie’s end of the deal.
If Gwen knew Lucas was dead and thought I was, too, there was nothing to fear from cashing out Artie’s share and moving on up. Unless, like I said, Artie had been holding out on the rest of us all this time. Either way, she owed me.
And that was the thought that consumed me, the one thing that kept me going those last couple years. Gwen owed me. And whatever it took, as soon as I walked off The Farm, I was going to get what was mine.
I told Gwen I’d give her a couple of days. I’m nothing if not a man of my word. But this time, I waited until Larry was home.
It was a little after 8:30 when I knocked, and the man himself answered the door.
“Can I help you?” he asked, rubbing his hands together to dry them, a small white dishrag slung over the shoulder of his off-the-rack collared white shirt. He didn’t seem distressed in the least, which meant Gwen hadn’t told him about our earlier conversation.
“I was hoping I could speak to the lady of the house for a moment.”
Larry stopped rubbing his hands, and tilted his head at me quizzically. “And you are. . .”
I closed my eyes and exhaled, feigning embarrassment. “I’m sorry, where are my manners? I’m an old friend of Gwen and… Wow, this is awkward…” I shrugged apologetically. “Gwen and her first husband Arthur.”
“I see,” Larry said, sizing me up. As if he had a chance. “I don’t think I caught your name.”
“Ray,” I said, smiling with all my teeth. “Ray Dooley.”
“Well,” he said. “Let me see if she’s available.”
Larry’s artificial manners let me know for sure that Gwen hadn’t said anything about my first visit. The way he firmly shut the door in my face before he went back in the house let me know he wasn’t a dummy. I filed both those bits of information away, each useful in its own way.
When the front door opened again, Gwen stood there alone. “Walk with me,” she said, shutting the door behind her.
I followed Gwen as she walked silently down the driveway. She stopped near the mailbox, just short of the street, and pulled a lone cigarette and match out of the pocket of her yoga pants.
I held up my finger, made a circular motion. “I would have thought that with all this,” I said, “you would have given that up.”
She gave me a pointed look as she struck the match against the mailbox. “I did quit,” she said. “Started back a couple days ago.”
I chuckled as she blew a puff of smoke right into my face, an attempt at letting me know she wasn’t scared of me.
But I knew better.
“Thought about our conversation the other day, Gwendy?” I looked back towards the house, Larry’s shadow lurking in the front window.
“Yeah, I did, and the answer’s still the same. Go fuck yourself, Ray.”
“Wow. You kiss the boys good night with that mouth?”
Gwen dropped the cigarette on the asphalt, ground it out under the heel of her sneaker.
“Don’t talk about my children,” she said quietly. “Ever again.”
I held my palms up, took a step back. “Be glad to,” I said. “Once I get what’s mine, you’ll never see me again.”
Gwen sighed heavily. “There’s nothing to give you, Ray. I don’t even know what you’re talking about. But even if I did?”
She waited, wanting me to finish.
“I could go fuck myself?” I said.
“Soooo… I guess the next step is to walk up the driveway here and have a nice chat with good ol’ Larry.”
Gwen crossed her arms, shifted her feet so that she stood between me and the house. “Larry knows all about Artie,” she said. “He doesn’t like it, but he knows. Everything.”
“And he married you anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I scratched my beard, waited a beat. “He knows what you did for us, too?”
She looked away, just a quick second. I had her. “Some of it,” she said.
“So I’ll just fill him on the rest of it, then? That’s how you want to play this?”
“Just tell him what you want—he knows enough. The rest won’t surprise him.”
I made another circle with my finger. “You willing to bet all this on that?”
Gwen rubbed her fingers together, jonesing for another cigarette. I had a hardpack in my jacket pocket, but I didn’t offer. “I don’t know what else I can really do,” she said. “Whatever it is you think you’re looking for—I don’t have it.”
“‘Cause you sold it—to help pay for all this.”
“Jesus Christ, Ray. For the last fucking time—I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I shook my head, gave Gwen my best I guess I’ve done all I can do here look. “So I’ll be seeing you, then,” I said. “Real soon.”
See, here’s the thing about the whole situation: I knew Gwen was lying. One hundred percent, without a doubt, lying through her perfectly-capped teeth.
How’d I know? Follow my logic.
Eleven years ago, me and Artie and Lucas knocked over a high-end auction house in Asheville. We hit it the night before a big auction and cleared some real big-ticket items.
Me, I wasn’t so sure just what we got our hands on that night, but Lucas had us convinced that we were into something good. It wasn’t jewelry, paintings, rare books, or anything like that—we left the auction house that night with a big pile of baseball cards.
For the most part, Artie and I just took Lucas’ word for it on the cards; after all, he was the super fan. Even though we all played JV together back in high school, Lucas was the only one of us who thought of himself as a baseball fan. Artie played to get girls. I played because I liked to hit things, at least until I got kicked off the team for helping myself to a hundred bucks out of the wallet our coach left in the locker room every day.
The auction house was hosting a near-perfect item for our purposes, Lucas said: a rare, uncut sheet of cards from the 1911 T206 series. Too rare, actually—any attempt to move the sheet would definitely draw the kind of attention we didn’t want or need.
But—and Lucas said this was the real beauty of the job—we could cut the sheet into individual cards, rub up the corners with a damp rag and some dirt to ‘age’ them a bit, then sell them off piecemeal, a few at a time. Steal one thing, sell off another. Still suspicious, but not near as much.
The job itself was pretty smooth, in and out in a little under six minutes. Lucas grabbed the sheet of cards, Artie and I grabbed a sack each full of other things we found interesting, and we beat it out of there well ahead of the cops.
At the time, Lucas was staying with some gal whose husband was over in Iraq, some place out in the county somewhere, so we went back to his place where it was nice and quiet to divvy up the score. Artie and I worked on a bottle of Early Times while Lucas worked on the cards with an exacto knife; before long he had turned the sheet into over a hundred individual cards.
We all agreed ahead of time that once the score was split, no one would make a move to sell any of it for at least five years. A rare sheet turns up stolen, and a few weeks later those individual cards were for sale? We weren’t that stupid. Better to let the heat die down first—we were viewing this job as a long-term investment.
Lucas pulled some sort of pricing sheet off the computer, and we let him sort the cards into three more or less equal piles. The piles didn’t have the same number of cards, but they all had roughly the same value, according to Lucas’ sheet.
My pile is still safe, wrapped and stuffed in a hole in the mattress in the back bedroom at my mama’s house back home. The same mattress my grandma died on when she came to live with us when I was nine; the same mattress I hid my porn in when I was twelve.
Lucas’ pile? God only knows at this point. The plan was to tackle that one next, since I didn’t even know where to start.
But Artie’s pile? Gwen knew. Gwen always knew everything about Artie’s scores. She was usually the one that did the hiding, if hiding’s what was needed. She either knew where the cards were, or she had already moved them.
Either way, she was going to pay.
It took me two minutes on that bench in the park to figure out where to hit Gwen to make it hurt the most. It surprised me, really: I would have thought for sure that tipping off the new husband and the new social circle to her background would have been the play. But she didn’t seem to care about that at all.
The only thing she seemed to care about was the boys.
When I went away, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a worse mother than Gwen. She and my baby sister were best friends going all the way back to the Sunday School class they were in together. Hell, Heather’s probably the one that introduced Gwen to her first taste of the shit they both got hooked on. Gwen was right there in the room when Heather OD’d, too fucked up herself to do anything about it.
Nine years ago, the nicest thing you could get Gwen to call the boys was an inconvenience. Now, though… You could see it in her eyes at the park. Fierce. This was a woman who’d do anything to protect her children. She’d even got clean to protect them, and that was no small task given where she was when Artie got killed.
It was surprising, but I didn’t doubt it was real.
So if I needed to get to her, I’d have to do it through the kids.
I gave it another couple days to hopefully have Gwen let her guard down just a little bit. I watched the boys walk home from school a couple times, learned the route they took, cutting through the park for a short cut. Then I went back to the motel and had a beer and a hooker for dinner.
On the third day, I drove my car down to the park and sat down on a bench that Reed and Leo walked past every day on their way home. They walked up at 3:15, right on schedule.
I waved as they approached. “Whatcha say, boys?”
Reed, the oldest, made as if to keep walking, but Leo stopped. Reed grabbed his brother by the arm, trying to pull him along. “Let’s go,” Reed said, ignoring me.
“Hey, Leo,” I said as the kid shook Reed’s hand loose. “Long time no see. You were barely walking the last time I saw you.”
“I don’t know you,” Leo said.
Reed exhaled deeply, his face darkening the same way Artie’s used to. “Yeah, you do,” he said to Leo. “This is the asshole’s been bothering Mom.”
I gave a little laugh, hoping it seemed genuine. “Is that what she said?” I kept smiling, shook my head. “Look, I’m gonna be honest here. Your mama and I ain’t always gotten along that great. I was more your daddy’s friend.”
“You knew my daddy?” Leo said.
“C’mon, you little shit, let’s go,” Reed said.
“Oh, yeah, Leo, I knew your daddy,” I said. “Me and him was best friends since… hell, since we were your age. What are you, ten? Younger than you, even.”
“I’m eleven,” Leo said.
“Well, there you go,” I said. “Your mama talk about your daddy much?”
“Just that he was some no-count white trash that did a lot of stupid shit and got himself killed,” Reed said.
I tried to study Leo’s face before I answered, but he wouldn’t look up, his eyes down on the sidewalk. Based on that, I figured he might have a little better opinion of Artie than Reed did, and wondered how to play that to my advantage. “Yeah, Reed, all of that is probably true,” I allowed. “We were both no account, and we both did a lot of stupid shit.”
I scratched my beard, playing at being deep in thought. “I tell you this, though. Everything your daddy did, he did for his family. Everything so you and your mama could have a better life. She probably don’t always remember that part of it.”
That wasn’t exactly true, but it was true enough for what I was selling. “Look, can I let you in on a little secret? I got a couple things back at my motel that your daddy wanted you to have. I tried to get your mama to take ‘em and give to you, but she didn’t want nothing to do with it.”
“That’s why she’s been yelling at you?” Leo asked.
I nodded, then moved in for the kill.
“What if—” I cut myself off. “Nah, forget it. Wouldn’t want anybody to get in any trouble.”
“What?” Leo asked. I could barely hear him, what with the giant hook in his mouth. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
“No, I was just thinking I could just give the stuff straight to you guys, and that way we don’t have to bother your mama with it.”
“That sounds like a bad idea,” Reed said.
“You go home if you want, Reed,” Leo said. “I’m going to get Dad’s stuff.”
I kept my mouth shut and let the boys play it out.
“You don’t even remember him,” Reed. “C’mon—we’re going home.”
“No. I’m going with… ” Leo looked up at me. Stupid kid didn’t even know my name.
“Ray,” I said. “My name’s Ray.”
Leo shot his older brother a ‘fuck you’ look that rivaled Gwen’s best from the old days. “I’m going with Ray, Reed,” he said. “You go on home if you want to.”
Reed’s eyes flashed with anger. I could tell, though, that is was directed at me, not Leo. “Not by yourself, you’re not. Let’s go, I guess, if you’re not going to listen to me.”
“Great!” I said, clapping my hands together with fake enthusiasm. “If it’d make you feel better, Reed, I can call your Mom and let her know where you are.”
Reed thought about it. “Nah, I better do it myself.”
“Let me—that way when she gets mad, it’ll seem like it’s my fault.”
“Whatever.” Reed shrugged and handed me the phone from his backpack as the three of us walked towards the parking lot and my car. I found “Mom” on his recent call screen and punched the redial button.
“Hey Gwen, it’s Ray… now wait, calm down a minute.” Reed and Leo were watching, so I looked down and gave them a wink—we’re in this together now, boys.
“Yeah, the boys are right here with me—we’re headed back to my motel… You don’t have to pick them up, I’d be glad to drop them back by the house when we’re through… Yeah, sure, whatever you want.”
I gave her the motel address as we climbed into the car and pulled away. “Don’t forget your seatbelts, boys,” saying it like I gave a fuck, for Gwen’s benefit. “Room 113—it’s on the back side, away from the highway noise… Bring me something when you come, would ya? I don’t know, surprise me.”
I barely had time to zip-tie the boys to the toilet before there was a loud pounding at the door. “Goddamit, Ray, you open this fucking door right now!”
I opened it, and Gwen barged into the room, a heavy tote bag in her hands. “Ooh, is that my surprise?”
“Where are the boys?”
“The boys are fine, Gwen. I looked towards the bathroom and raised my voice. “Aren’t you, boys?”
“Is that you, Mom?” Reed called. He didn’t sound so tough now, the little shit.
“I’m right here, baby,” Gwen said. “We’ll be out of here in just a second.”
Gwen turned back to me, stared right in my eyes. “I’m going to fucking kill you,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Thought you might say that—let’s make sure you’re not carrying anything to do it with.”
She dropped the bag on the ground and held her arms out to the sides. I patted her down, letting my hands linger a little bit in all the right places. She bristled under my touch, but no gun.
“You know I had to do that, right?” I said.
“Fucker,” she said. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Gwen dumped the duffel bag out on the bed—and there they were. Lying in the middle of a pile of old signed balls and bats and gloves and old wool jerseys was a carefully bubble-wrapped stack of vintage 1911 baseball cards.
“So you did have it,” I said.
“Whatever it is,” she said. “I brought all of Artie’s shit I still have since I still don’t know what the hell you’re looking for.”
I brushed past Gwen and moved to the bed. I sat on the edge and focused my attention directly on the cards, ignoring everything else. I wasn’t sure if I should touch them, or even undo the bubble wrap—shouldn’t I have been wearing some kind of white gloves or something? Lucas would know, but he wasn’t there.
“I brought your shit, Ray—give me the boys.”
“In a minute,” I said, trying to remember the name of the fence we all used in the old days. He’d know what to do with these cards—all of it, really. Might have to take fifteen cents on the dollar, but it would still be a nice little nut to get some things going again.
There was a rustling behind me, as Gwen rooted around in the empty duffel bag. “In a minute,” I said again, really starting to get annoyed with her.
“What!” I yelled, then looked up just as Gwen blasted me in the face with the same two and a half pound bat the Babe used to club a homer in the 1926 World Series.
When I came to, I was handcuffed to a hospital bed with a broken jaw. I also had a broken nose, two black eyes, three missing teeth, and a grade three concussion.
Clearly, Gwen had hit me more than once.
The beat cop stationed in the room read me my rights a couple minutes later.
“Whazz de charge?” I said, every syllable of every word shooting explosive pain throughout my body.
“You were found unconscious in a motel room with the door wide open, lying on a big pile of shit that was reported stolen ten years ago. Not to mention the parole violation. You tell me what the charge is.”
“When the maid found you, yeah. But somebody knocked your ass out, so not really. Must’ve pissed your partners off royally.”
I closed my eyes—even that hurt. “Cardzh?” I asked.
“No, man, you had gloves and balls, old jerseys. A couple of hats. Little bit of everything—no baseball cards, though.”
I tried to smile, but couldn’t.
Gwendy. Artie’d be so proud.
Frank Byrns has published over three dozen short stories in a variety of genres; his crime stories have been or will be featured in Shotgun Honey, Powder Burn Flash, Everyday Fiction, and The Rusty Nail.