At Leila’s, Nolan sat in a booth. Tamaz brought over bowls of lamb stew and laid them on the tablecloth.
“Look like tomatilloes,” said Nolan.
“Cherry plum sauce,” said Tamaz. He ripped apart his bread. “How’s Mexico?”
“So you flew to Boston?”
“Hotter by the week,” said Nolan.
“Before I do this, how do you know O’Driscoll?”
“Known him years. He went to college, I kept robbing.”
“You work for him?”
“Once upon a time,” Nolan said. “And once this is over, I’m gone. Time zones, hemispheres… Where you from, anyway? I don’t know that flag.”
Nolan laughed. “The other Georgia.”
Tamaz owned Leila’s. He leaned back, creased the plush. O’Driscoll had gotten him a liquor license—who exactly was Nolan? He sipped his wine and muttered, “What can I do?”
“Meet those boys in the Russian Room.”
“Should I say you’re going to kill them?”
Nolan fiddled with his stew. “Do you value this establishment?” He slurped and spit out the sauce. “Other things?”
Onstage the crooner was doing his soundcheck, tapping the microphone until it fed back. Tamaz whispered to him. The man slipped on his jacket and left through the side door.
Tamaz settled in the booth. “Let say,” he told Nolan, “I set it up. Everyone’s in the room—Marat, all those guys. What’s my exit?”
“A signal,” said Nolan. “First, you waltz outside with a cigarette.”
“I quit smoking.”
“Then stand there,” said Nolan. “Do some jumping jacks. Burpees. Who gives a shit? When it’s time, stay out of my way.”
The side door opened. The crooner mounted the stage and sang half a scale. Before leaving, Nolan said: “Tell anyone and you’re first.”
Nolan cleaned the barrel of his .357 with solvent and a bore brush. As the bristles twisted through the rifling, he thought of the last time he’d fired a gun: two weeks ago, in Guadalajara.
He scrubbed the chamber, muzzle, rear sight, and extractor rod. Afterwards he polished it with an old sock. Nolan lined up his ammunition and placed a bullet in the cylinder.
It took a single bullet to kill Flacco.
He’d found one of his girls pregnant by Nolan. Drove to his apartment, tried to surprise him with a TEC-9. Nolan caught the pimp behind the door.
For the girl, Marta, he chambered a second. Nolan thought she’d wanted him to kill Flacco; they had plans for Guatemala, big houses in the jungle. Instead, Marta sliced his arm with a machete. She screamed she would never have his baby. He left her dead in the apartment with Flacco. After a week of hiding from the pimp’s brothers, he called O’Driscoll.
The third he couldn’t load.
His door buzzed at eight o’clock. When Tamaz entered, Nolan cranked up the air conditioning.
“It’s done,” said Tamaz.
Nolan dropped his bowl, noodles spilling on his knee. He wiped them up with a brown napkin. “I’ll need a week for the tail.”
“Look,” said Tamaz, “it’s not easy. I’m trying to make this seem real.”
“It’ll be real when my barrel’s in your ass.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Nolan snorted. “You’re all right,” he said. “Give me the goddamn time, Tamaz. And not the time in Georgia.”
The next morning, Nolan picked up a Lexus with stolen plates. He went to O’Driscoll’s office, where his secretary said, “Golf.”
The job was at the White Palace, a gambling house outside Springfield. First was recon: Nolan parked a mile down the lane and hiked through the woods. He fixed his disguise using a compact mirror. At the door, he handed the entrance fee to a woman on a beige sofa. She planted her stockinged feet.
“No touching,” she said. “Like everyone else, you pay extra.”
He nodded, moved to the foyer. On the second floor was the Russian Room. Kazakhs and Mongols played baccarat; Cossacks bet on Formula One. O’Driscoll said Marat and his friends liked the races. When taking breaks, they sat near the roulette wheel.
The room was smoky. Nolan tuned out the chatter of strange accents. He scanned the room, left as quickly as he arrived. If any gamblers noticed him, they would have seen a bearded man with a large mole on his temple. Downstairs, he played a few games of dice. A broad man with dentures kept mumbling the wrong numbers. Nolan exited the house.
He drove to the motel and dreamed of Guatemala. Two years ago, on a road outside Livingston, he’d fallen from a Jeep and broken his leg. Immediately he was beset by villagers, each fighting for a chance to take him to the nearest hospital. To them, all gringos had money; in Nolan’s case, they were right.
Marta was dead.
He’d buy property. Later, he’d buy the women.
Sixty feet from the overpass, the Star Motel was a wide concrete low-rise. Nolan checked in wearing his mole and beard.
“One bed,” said Nolan. “You know, someone was supposed to meet me here. Anyone waiting?”
“What do they look like?”
He trudged up to the room, peeled off his disguise. Around nine came a knock.
She was attractive but nothing like Marta.
Nolan surprised the woman by speaking Spanish. After a few drinks, she danced for him. He felt fine. It was more difficult in the bedroom.
“Maybe tired,” she said, and insisted he wait.
“Bring me another girl,” said Nolan.
The woman dressed and went downstairs. Through the pipe he heard her arguing with the front desk. Nolan took the duffle bag with his disguise and shoved it under the bed. The woman brought up a friend who looked Honduran.
“Take off your clothes,” he told them. “Touch each other.”
“Do you want—”
By midnight, the women were finished. Nolan told the second girl to leave.
He poured a finger of vodka. “Drink?”
“Are we staying up?”
“Work tomorrow,” said Nolan. “I want you here, on the bed.”
“Long as you’re paying.”
“What’s your name?” he asked her. “Your real one?”
She stared blankly at him. “Griselda.”
He placed a hundred-dollar bill on the coffee table. “Marta.”
She said nothing.
“Any kids?” he asked her.
“In my line, you’re discouraged from having one chick—you can be touched.”
“Her name was Marta?”
“She came later,” said Nolan. “Before that, I made my old boss a cuckold. His wife had trouble conceiving and got knocked around. He forced her to abort it… Instead of naming me, she hanged herself.”
Nolan woke at three. Gone was Griselda; nothing missing from his wallet.
From the balcony, Nolan watched the girls come and go on the front steps. He knew whoring wasn’t the oldest profession—older was the thief, and the first to have a job was the killer. But there were amateurs and pros. Most of the time, not even pros made retirement.
A few acres of garden: shrubs, hedges, rows of daffodils. The White Palace entrance was crowded with guards and working girls. The real thugs had automatics poking out of their waistbands. Over the music, Nolan heard grunts and the clopping of heels.
He could not smell the breeze but tasted it.
Flood lights cast thin and irregular shadows on the backyard. Tamaz stood along the fence. He leaned against the rail, lit a cigarette.
Nolan passed the first hedge. He no longer felt the chill, or the sweat below his ski mask. He increased his speed until he reached the rear porch.
“Is it worth it?” said Tamaz, staring up at the branches. “Four.”
The stairs were dark and without rails. Using his left hand, Nolan brushed against the wall as he bounded the steps. His right held the .357.
He reached the second landing. The end of the hall—the Russian Room. Nolan ripped off the mask, concealed it in his glove.
He peered into the first room: a few men watching a horse race. In the middle, he noticed the broad man he’d seen rolling dice.
The man looked at him, then the race.
Nolan walked down the hall.
In his photographs Marat had large eyes, a sharp nose, stubble, and wavy black hair parted in the center. Nolan spotted him playing baccarat. Tamaz had said four men, but he only saw three: Marat, a guy with a shaved head, and a weasel-man with glasses. In his peripheral vision he scanned two others. One was an old gent pulling slots; another he couldn’t identify.
Marat kept chuckling until Nolan drew the revolver.
The gun fired three bullets. Metal shredded the lungs and heart of the weasel-man. With his arms crossed, Marat sank below the table. Nolan shot him in the stomach. Another bullet passed through his right eye and out his skull.
The large man leaped across at him. Nolan retreated two steps. After the assailant collapsed on the rug, he placed one in the back of his neck.
In the corner of Nolan’s eye, the old man trembled.
“Don’t shoot me,” said a voice.
He reloaded. For a second, Nolan felt fear; he smelled the iron in the men’s blood.
The man’s palms were out, his chin buried at the base of his neck.
“Look at me,” he told the man.
Nolan saw the muzzle flash, then the smoke.
The bullet struck his left arm. Nolan swung toward the door, still gripping the .357. Another hit his chest. He dropped to his knees, the floor.
The broad man fired three rounds in the gent’s torso.
The gun fit snugly under Nolan’s ear.
An Escalade ran the curb. Out of the back climbed O’Driscoll, dressed in a blue suit and dark blue club tie.
“Who’s parked out back?”
Tamaz swept the front steps. “No one.”
“Good,” said O’Driscoll. “Truck coming soon. They’ll close off the lot.”
The men went inside and sat away from the windows. O’Driscoll grinned when the truckers arrived. “A few months ago,” he said, “you borrowed some money.”
“The liquor license?”
“Yes,” said O’Driscoll. “Go meet the driver.”
When Tamaz returned, he smelled tobacco. O’Driscoll had lit up and sat with his right leg over his left.
“You know,” said O’Driscoll, “I don’t even smoke.” He licked his finger, touched the tip of the cigarette. “For some reason, I bought a pack. And for some reason, after you left, I fired up this damn thing.”
“I cannot do what you ask.”
O’Driscoll drew the cigarette from his mouth. He stubbed it out on the table cloth, slowly rotating the nub. “When you got the loan, I got you.”
“Not for this.”
“Whatever you thought,” said O’Driscoll, “forget it.”
“I would rather not take part.”
“How about your driveway?” said O’Driscoll. “Would that be a good spot? Two guys in masks cut off your dick and shove it in your mouth. Then they slice off your ears, spoon out your eyes, and stick them up your ass with a screwdriver.”
Tamaz said nothing.
“Don’t worry,” said O’Driscoll. “It won’t always include what’s left of your friends.”
“Nolan was your friend.”
O’Driscoll glanced out the window. “Too many poor decisions. Nolan, you see, thought he had secrets. And from what I hear, he was a nuisance in Mexico.” He nodded at a broad man rolling dice by the Escalade. “Now they owe me, too.”
Tamaz recalled Nolan on the slab. The bottom of his jaw was missing.
“I don’t have a choice.”
Tamaz wiped away the ash.
To prepare himself, Tamaz went to the cooler. He took four gulps from a bottle of Baltika and poured the rest down the sink.
In the butcher’s freezer was Nolan’s head.
The neck no longer bled. With his own knowledge of carving, Tamaz admired the cut. You couldn’t say they were amateurs.
There was dried blood on the tile around the fridge.
He closed the freezer door.
One day, Tamaz knew, he would close it for the last time.