Prologue

These days, I obey all the laws. Even the stupid ones. With three years of parole still hanging around my neck, I can’t afford to put a foot wrong. Too many vindictive people—mostly those I had stolen large sums of money from and who were never recompensed and were never going to get recompensed—would be delighted to see my ass back in jail.

This newly civic-minded attitude of mine explained why I was sitting at a traffic light, idling behind another car at 3:20 a.m. on a frigid December night, while the exhaust-belching beater ahead of me had not moved for three full cycles of green-yellow-red.

Even though no other car had passed through the intersection in any direction for several minutes, I didn’t want to zoom around this blockhead, just in case a police cruiser should happen to swing by at that very moment. I had just enjoyed three generous mojitos, over as many hours, at Danny’s Cavern (and left without getting so much as a phone number). So while, by my reckoning, I was sober as an owl, I did not want to chance blowing even a hair over the legal limit.

But my patience was wearing thin. Not that I had anyone waiting for me at home, or any job to get up for in the morning. Nonetheless. So I focused my growing annoyance on the back of the driver’s shaggy head, spotlighted in the muted blue radiance of the corner streetlight, and tried to send a telepathic message to move. No luck. Was he looking at his cell phone? I applauded his considerate wisdom in not texting while his car was in motion, but my inconvenience had to count for something.

Finally, I did what I had been avoiding for fear of waking up the whole very proper suburban neighborhood where we sat frozen in place. (That damn cringing, overcautious whipped-dog attitude again. Two years of prison, even in the relatively country-club atmosphere where I did my stint, had really taken the starch out of me.) I lay on my horn for an earsplitting second or two.

I might as well have whispered at him for all the response I got.

With a long, self-pitying sigh that felt all too familiarly satisfying, I put my car in park and, leaving the motor running, stepped out. The cold air hit me like falling into a mountain stream. With the clean scent of approaching winter stinging my nostrils, I crunched over the gritty ice on the roadway to the guy’s door.

My first quick impression was of your standard mook. Ugly-handsome, wearing a leather jacket unzipped over a garish sweater cut low enough to reveal a thatch of chest hair adorned with a gold chain. I had seen his type often enough coming through the law offices, usually seeking our help against one minor felony charge or another.

My second quick impression told me the guy was dead.

His face was pale and clammy like a frog’s belly. His lips were bluish, and not just from the streetlight. His eyes stared without seeing, his pupils the size of poppy seeds. His stiff right leg, foot jammed on the brake, was the only thing keeping his car from moving.

I jerked open the door and brought my head close to his. Booze and body spray.

Faint but stertorous breathing told me he hadn’t quite croaked. And I knew what had hit him—I’d seen it often enough before.

I sprinted back to my car and grabbed the Narcan kit from under the front seat. I fumbled out the nasal injector and sprinted back to the mook’s car. I had to wrangle him to tilt his head back and maximize the dose. The car started to roll forward, and I abandoned him for the shifter. After slamming it into park, I pushed the injector deep into one nostril and blasted the naloxone up into his skull, then laid him back down on the seat.

Almost immediately, his condition improved. His breathing got easier, his skin changed color, and he began to twitch.

If only this miracle stuff had been around when I was using. But it wasn’t, and I had seen several of my dope friends and fix acquaintances buy the farm for lack of it.

I called the cops on my cell. They roared up in no time, as if they were actors waiting just offstage for their cue. Their strobe lights painted the scene as if for an early Christmas.

One cop went to attend the mook, while the other came to me. The blond, smooth-faced kid questioning me looked so young and earnest, I felt like my own father. But he still regarded me with that innate suspicion all cops quickly develop, as if I must be guilty of something.

“Your name?”

“Glen McClinton.” I already had my license out.

“You called this in?”

“Yes.” I explained the circumstances.

“Please wait right here.”

He went back to the car and ran my information. When he returned, he was trying his best not to look especially crafty, and I resigned myself to some hassle.

“Mr. McClinton, the terms of your parole do not include a prohibition on alcohol, so I won’t ask you to take a Breathalyzer test. You seem quite sober. I hope you’ll appreciate this special consideration.”

“Thanks.” I suspected what was next.

“Okay, then. So maybe you’ll be up front with me. I need to know if you were meeting this person to make a heroin buy.”

“I was not. I have been clean for over two years.”

“Yet you carry a Narcan kit with you.”

“I just don’t like seeing people die if I can help it.”

“Isn’t it quite a coincidence that an ex-addict like yourself should happen to be tailing a current addict?”

“I wasn’t tailing him; I was driving home. It’s not much of a coincidence anyhow, two dopers in a line of cars, given the growing number of junkies around town these days.”

“What made you intervene, then, if you didn’t know him?”

I experienced a sudden weariness at that moment. I felt stupid and ridiculous, my whole life a pointless exercise. So I indulged in a little snark.

“I told you, I have an objection to useless deaths. Hard as it is to believe, even an ‘ex-addict like myself’ can be a Good Samaritan. God works in mysterious ways, right? He even saw fit to make you a policeman.”

The young cop looked as if he was about to object to my mild sass. But then the ambulance pulled up in a confusion of noise and lights, and the guy’s partner left the EMTs to their job and came over to us. He was older and, I hoped, smarter.

“Jack, we can stop questioning Mr. McClinton now. You can be sure there’s no connection here. The vic just got out of jail this morning, upstate. He rode a bus most of the day, arrived here in town, bought this car around 6:00 p.m. He barely had time to get his own fix, never mind setting up a deal.”

Jack seemed reluctant to let it go. But a stern look from his partner convinced him.

“You’re free to leave, Mr. McClinton. I’d be sure to report this incident to my parole officer if I were you.”

“If you were me, then I could be someone else, and I might be a lot happier, although you’d be miserable. But that’s not gonna happen.”

The young cop scowled, and the older one laughed. Then I was back in my car and on my delayed ride home.

I figured that would be the last I ever heard of this poor overdosed jerk.

Ha.

 

1

Back in the good old, bad old days, I used to drive a Porsche Cayman, Black Edition. Once the dealer got it tricked out to my specs, it had cost me seventy thousand. I loved that car like the daughter I never had (and now probably never would have). The interior was like sitting cozy in God’s palm. Once, I took it to a track and got it up to 160. There was a stretch of highway on the coast where I’d regularly break 120. Ghent, Goolsbee & Saikiri, my employers, even paid my speeding tickets.

But that car was long gone, auctioned off by court order, along with all my other possessions of any value, to repay at least some bare pittance to the clients I had bilked. All my savings accounts, IRAs, stocks, and other financial instruments and investments had been liquidated as well. I had gone into prison with a net worth approximating zero. And even then, my victims felt I hadn’t been punished enough. Bernie Madoff, c’est moi—a pint-size version, anyway. I lost track of exactly how much I stole—the heroin was partly responsible for my slovenly illicit bookkeeping—but it was in the vicinity of only five or six million—nothing like Bernie’s tab of eighteen billion or so.

In any case, when I got out of prison (curing my drug habit almost made that hellish stay worth it), I entered a halfway house as a penniless penitent. The counselors tried to fix me up with one dead-ass job after another, but I bailed on or got fired from all of them. It wasn’t that I thought such work beneath me. Most of the companies the counselors placed me with provided valuable or at least not-harmful things and services, and their employees labored harder and more honestly than I ever had at GG&S. No, I just couldn’t stand the contrast between my old life and this new one. Nor did I enjoy, as the break-room talk turned personal, sharing my fall from fortune with all these regular joes and janes.

They never got mad or judgmental with me over what I had done.

It was always pity I saw in their eyes. For I had thrown my life away, along with all its opportunities and rewards and privileges that they would never know.

They were right, of course, and I just couldn’t take knowing they were right.

When it came time for my transition out of the halfway house, I had to meet for the umpteenth time with Anton Paget, my first and current parole officer.

Paget was no bleeding heart. About ten years older than me, he reminded me of a dwarf out of some fantasy movie, right down to the beard dense as a Texas mesquite thicket. He favored work boots, cargo shorts, and madras patch shirts that could make your eyes bleed. During ten years at this job, he had handled enough poor slobs like me not to be overoptimistic about the success rate of his clients.

“McClinton, you are a grade-A fuckup.”

“Yes, sir.”

“How, exactly, do you plan to reintegrate yourself back into society as a useful citizen if you can’t even slap a hamburger together?”

“I do not wish to reintegrate, sir. I just want to live in isolation like a gut-shot animal and lick my wounds until I finally expire and am no longer a burden on society.”

Paget restrained a grin. “Highly inspirational. Maybe we can get you a speaking gig at the local high schools. ‘Scared Shiftless.’” His eyes narrowed. “Seriously, how do you intend to support yourself?”

“I have a relative who will take me in, at least until I can piece together what I want to do. My uncle, Ralph Sickert.”

Paget needlessly consulted some forms—only to avoid holding my gaze, I suspected. “Your parents are both gone, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

My father, Aaron, had died of an aneurysm while I was still a young, high-flying legal eagle. But my mother, Christina, had died while I was in prison, her chronic illnesses no doubt aggravated by my fall from grace. I couldn’t even get a day pass to attend her funeral.

“This Uncle Ralph—he’s got a stable lifestyle? Good home? Willing to let you coast on his nickel?”

“He’s retired, and he owns his own place. He says he could use my company.”

“Well, we’ll have to make a site inspection, but tentatively it sounds okay.”

* * *

Leaving the parole office, I took a crosstown bus to Uncle Ralph’s house and got busy.

What I hadn’t told Paget was that Ralph Sickert was a stooper. That’s the guy who picks up intact discarded tickets, looking for inadvertently abandoned winners. It’s about as low as you can descend in the racetrack pecking order. So Uncle Ralph was gone from his modest house from sunup till late at night, coming back just to eat a little junk food and sleep before starting the next day all over again.

Ralph had married my mother’s sister, Gillian. He had always been a devil-may-care playboy type who drove my sober and sedate aunt to distraction with his wild ways. But he had provided a good living for himself and his wife, thanks to his skills as an old-school chef, working at various high-end steak houses around the state, the kind of place that focused more on portion size than quality of the beef. When Aunt Gillian died, Ralph—left improvidently with no savings but with a free and clear deed to his house—retired on a decent Social Security check. That was when he developed a problem with the horses. He blew most of his check on the ponies within a few days after it hit his account. And for the rest of the month, he became a stooper—an ignoble profession at best.

But Uncle Ralph didn’t seem to mind. Anything to stay active at the place where he felt most at home.

Consequently, Ralph’s actual home looked as if the tenant had died a year ago and the corpse still hadn’t been discovered. There were cobwebs older than my sentencing date, and the dust bunnies had mutated into jackalopes. The kitchen was piled high with moldy take-out containers, so that the place looked like the tomb of a pharaoh with an addiction to KFC and Subway.

That day, I spent a solid eight hours cleaning, until about 10:00 p.m., when I heard Uncle Ralph’s tired old Impala pull into the driveway.

Hollowed out by his current schedule, lifestyle, and obsessions, the big man I recalled from my youth was now a beaten seventy-two-year-old washout. He didn’t look particularly surprised to see me after so long. Neither welcoming nor rejecting, but neutrally curious, he listened to me explain what I needed from him.

“So you’ll promise to be here all day this first time when the social worker is going to come by? And you’ll make out like you’re a quiet old shut-in who just can’t wait for his nephew to move in?”

“Sure. So long as you can come up with a hundred dollars. That’s what I make on a good day at the track.” Ralph suddenly had a suspicious look. “Where you gonna get a hundred bucks from if you don’t have a job?”

“Don’t you worry about that,” I said. “Listen, I gotta run now, to beat the curfew at the residence.”

As I trotted down the sidewalk, Ralph called out, “Glen! Your mother always said right up to the end that you were a good boy!”

That was the first time I cried since my life went pear-shaped.

* * *

So, to put everything in a very small nutshell, the inspection went fine, the Department of Corrections approved, and for the past year now I had lived with Uncle Ralph. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I kept the place reasonably clean and saw that he ate better. He gave me a roof over my head, and a stable address where Anton Paget could regularly come and see I was not violating any terms of my parole, despite my slackerly lack of ambition.

And I even got the use of a car. Not a Porsche, but it was wheels.

Uncle Ralph’s Impala hailed from the mythic year of 2002—precisely the model year that logged the most owner complaints. Something was always going wrong with it, and it fell to me to get the beast repaired.

It was only fair. I had access to the car pretty much all day. In the mornings, I would drop Uncle Ralph off at the track. I used to have to collect him, too. But over the past few months, he had been getting a ride from a lady friend his own age. Her name was Suzy Lam, and she resembled every plump Chinese auntie I had ever seen buying lottery tickets at the Asian markets. She could swear like a Marine drill instructor and smoked off-brand cigarettes by the carton. Suzy was just as hooked on the horses as Ralph, and apparently they had hit it off right from their first encounter. That meet-up occurred when Ralph, unbending after snatching a ticket from the filthy pavement, knocked the plastic cup of beer right out of Suzy’s hand. It splashed a bystander, whom she dissuaded from punching Ralph by reeling off a gale of profanity in her tobacco-cured rasp. By the time she consumed the last dregs of the replacement beer my uncle had bought her, they were a couple.

I had a vague hunch that Suzy might be thinking about moving in with Ralph, in which case I would be a definite third wheel, forced to find alternative housing. But with my usual lack of interest in my own life, I couldn’t get too worked up about the prospect until it happened.

On the morning of the August day that was to change my life, the Impala refused to start. Ralph hailed Suzy for a ride to the track, and a call to my regular garage got the balky machine hauled off. Later, I got the diagnosis: ignition shot. Two hundred and fifty for the repairs.

I went down to the basement. Built in the 1940s, Ralph’s house featured a working cellar fireplace. He stubbornly continued to burn paper trash there now and again—mostly nonwinning tickets he carted home to sort—just as if he were living in some bygone decade before pollution laws.

Scraping aside the ashes, I uncovered the loose bricks. I worked them out of place, getting my fingers all sooty, and reached into the cavity for the little fireproof SentrySafe, about the size of a flat-wrench box. I unlocked it by spinning the three mechanical reels to the proper combination.

Inside were some two hundred gold Panda coins, thirty grams each, issued by the Chinese government. At current market value, each coin was worth about thirteen hundred dollars, although the guy I regularly sold them to, a shady coin dealer named Bert Deluca, would give me only a thousand apiece. The discount was consideration for his keeping the transactions unrecorded. So the total contents of the chest were worth somewhere between two hundred thousand and a quarter of a million dollars.

Not too many lawyers had an actual golden parachute—especially a lawyer deemed bankrupt by every court in the land.

The Deadly Kiss-Off