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Death Never Sleeps
By E. J. Simon
iUniverse, LLCCopyright © 2013 E. J. Simon
All rights reserved.
Whitestone, Queens, New York October 31, 2009 5:45 p.m.
Alex Nicholas had often wondered what the last moments of his life would feel like. Would it be a shortness of breath, a cold sweat, a stabbing pain near the heart? Or perhaps a tender piece of Smith & Wollensky's New York strip lodged in his trachea, refusing to go down. He was in a dangerous business, which might have been what led to this morbid fascination. More likely, Alex thought, it was the result of attending all those gloomy Greek Orthodox funerals as a kid.
Or was it that shadow of a person nearby, someone watching or following him that he had caught a glimpse of a few times over the past few days? He wasn't sure what it was, but something was wrong.
He sat in his den, admiring his sleek Apple laptop. Although it looked like the same computer owned by millions of people, it was far more powerful. Inside the polished aluminum case and underneath the smooth white keyboard were over a million dollars of state-of-the-art upgrades and enhancements sourced from diverse specialized companies located all over the world and combined together by an obscure but strangely talented computer genius who just happened to live across the street. The combination had resulted in a breakthrough, Alex knew, that would change everything.
For a full minute, Alex just stared at his image on the screen. Using his laptop, he had taken the photograph of himself, and now he thought carefully about which words he wanted to place at the bottom of the screenshot. Then it came to him, the phrase that he had read days ago and that had stuck in his mind ever since. He began to type, watching the words appear below his image: Life is a dream; death is waking up.
Alex laughed. That will get their attention, he thought. Someday, hopefully not anytime soon. Alex smiled at his mirror image. I can't wait to show this to Michael.
Alex often thought about his brother, Michael, the only remaining link to the family of his childhood. He wished they were closer, though there were plenty of reasons why they weren't. Alex suspected it was either the business he was in or the women he married. He knew Michael wasn't comfortable with either. But now that he had completed his secret project, Alex Nicholas was determined to get closer to the brother that he sorely missed. Alex decided he would call Michael later—as soon as he'd had something to eat.
Moving quickly now, he signed off and closed the laptop. Alex carried the computer into his master bedroom and entered the spacious walk-in closet, quietly closing the door behind him. Inside there was a row of custom-made wooden shelves, running from the ceiling down to the floor, each shelf jutting out at an angle, designed to hold and display two pairs of shoes. He removed the shoes sitting on the fourth shelf from the bottom and, gripping the polished teak, pushed it upward. The specially designed panel easily lifted up, revealing a hidden compartment. Alex placed his unique laptop snuggly into the empty cavity and returned the shelf to its original position.
As he headed down his stairway and out the front door, Alex thought about the amazing breakthrough that was contained inside his computer and lightened his step. He was no genius when it came to electronics, and he didn't understand how it worked—or even why it worked—only that it did.
And because it did, Alex knew now that he would live forever.
Whitestone, Queens, New York 6:00 p.m.
Despite the uneasy feeling that had plagued him over the past few weeks, tonight Alex had no complaints. He was almost feeling good.
Grimaldi's, an old Queens bar and restaurant, was buzzing despite the early dinner hour, an ominous sky, and the first snow falling outside. Frankie Valli's hit song "Sherry" played for the thousandth time on the jukebox.
Veal parmigiana sizzled on the plate, the cheese and rich, red tomato sauce bubbling, a work of old-fashioned Italian-American art. Alex was about to cut into his first slice, when Maria came over to his table.
"Alex, how are you? You've been a stranger the last few weeks."
Maria was one of the sexiest women Alex had ever known—tall, slim, long dark hair, and exotic Mediterranean looks. Her deep, smoky voice only added to her unique appeal. She was forty-eight years old but exuded the confidence of a good-looking woman who knows she doesn't need to conceal those years.
"I've been busy," Alex groaned. "Everybody owes me money. I'd be rich if people would pay their fuckin' debts." He had sold Grimaldi's to Maria twelve years earlier. She still enjoyed seeing him every time he came in.
"I think you're still rich. Someone must be paying up," Maria shot back. "And I don't think that sport coat is from Walmart."
Alex looked down at his custom-tailored navy sport jacket as though it was the first time he had seen it. "What? It's from the Korean tailor in Flushing. I don't think it even fits right."
Alex Nicholas ran one of the largest sports gambling and loan-sharking operations in the city. He had that outer-borough, tough-guy appeal that women like Maria found irresistible, despite the fact that his body was showing the toll of fifty-five years of too many fast women, marriages, double scotches, and evenings that stretched out to early mornings. There had been many times Maria and Alex had longed to go to bed together, but somehow, between the business, the scotches, and their spouses at any given time, it just never happened.
Maria sat down with her gin and tonic and joined Alex while he devoured his veal. She wore a tight, clingy black dress that showed just enough cleavage for him to enjoy the view. "Alex, you know if you'd stop complaining all the time, you might find your life's not so bad."
"Oh yeah, you think so? I'm supporting everyone I fuckin' know or ever met, including three wives—and I'm only married to one, and she goes to bed at nine o'clock," Alex replied with his mouth full.
"You love it and you know it, Alex," Maria said with a laugh and a sly smile. "People need you, and I think you like it that way."
"Hmm," was all Alex could muster while he continued to methodically work through his meal. Two Chivas Regals had begun to soothe his edgy nerves, and the veal parmigiana was having the same effect on his stomach. Maybe Maria wasn't too far off, and maybe life wasn't so bad.
"You know, your brother told me once that he thought you never really recovered from losing that girl Molly when you went away to college."
"Who knows? It might not have worked that well either. I was crazy, and she might have been too." Alex's face and expression turned reflective, almost sad. "I'm not sure I was ever cut out to be married. I'm never getting fuckin' married again, that's for sure."
"I was also surprised when he told me the story. I didn't even know you went to college, Alex."
"In my business, the dumber people think I am, the better. I don't exactly brag about it. I was only there three years. I played baseball and fooled around. After high school, I had an offer to sign a minor league contract with the Pirates, but, you know, my parents were Greek immigrants. My father was a furrier, had a shop on Fifth Avenue but wanted his kids to go to college and become bankers or whatever corporate shit. Anyway, it wasn't for me."
"So what happened?"
"I went to Miami and played ball until I blew out my knees. Then I came home, got my insurance broker's license, took bets on the side, and finally found the closest thing I could do to playing ball—I became a bookie. That's how it all began."
"Jesus, Alex, that's some story. I can't believe you never told me this before."
"Yeah, well, not everyone thinks it's such a great thing."
"It's funny how your brother went so corporate, working for a big company. You two are very different, aren't you?"
"I guess so. He heads up some big company in the city. I'm proud of him. My parents never lived to see him like this. They died when he was in his thirties or so. He's always traveling all over the world. I couldn't do what he does, even if I knew what it was that he does."
"Well, Alex, he couldn't do what you do, either. Plus, despite your son-of-a-bitch persona, everyone—or almost everyone—likes you."
"I don't really give a shit whether people like me or not. I don't think about stuff like that. I got other things to worry about."
"Look around, Alex. Half the guys in this place tonight are your friends, even the cops. How many people in your line of work get along well with cops?"
Alex looked around the restaurant, silently counting the number of police officers. "They're all big shots now—detectives, narcs, captains. I knew them when they were on the beat, in their uniforms. I treat people well. I play by certain rules. No drugs, no dealing. And I've never hurt anyone—not seriously anyway."
"You just scare the shit out of them." Maria giggled.
"Sometimes that's the only way I can get paid, you know?"
"What I know, Alex, is that underneath this tough guy is the nicest person I have ever known." Maria reached over the table and caressed his cheek.
He turned away, gave a sideways smirk, and with his best touch of sarcasm said, "Well, you don't know that many people."
Maria rolled her eyes.
"You know what? Maybe I'm feeling pretty good tonight." He was finally smiling.
Alex turned back to his dinner, and Maria signaled the server for another round of drinks. He felt a chill run through him as a cold draft swept through the restaurant. He looked up in time to see the front door closing and a young man wearing a bright blue Mets cap moving, hesitantly, toward the bar.
Whitestone, Queens, New York 6:10 p.m.
Luke Burnett knew he was a long way from his home in Greenville, South Carolina. Although Grimaldi's was just a local Queens neighborhood bar and restaurant, Luke didn't fit in. His blue jeans were too baggy for his tall but skinny frame. The Mets cap was too new. He felt like a redneck or, worse, a hillbilly. Luke looked around the bar. He was surrounded by tough-looking hefty guys, all seemingly in black leather jackets, talking, shouting, or arguing. They spoke English, yet their New York accents were foreign to Luke. No one was as thin or as slight as he was. Even the women looked tougher. This gritty, blue-collar section of Queens was nothing like Greenville.
Luke's mind was spinning in all directions. He was nervous and insecure, yet excited about the people he had met in New York and the turn his life had taken.
He thought about his last meeting yesterday with the mysterious man who had now become his employer. He recalled that when he asked this strange, dark man whom he had come to trust for the reason behind his assignment, he was told, "When you find the right woman, Luke, you'll do things, things you might not have done before. Someday, you'll understand what obsession means."
As he scanned the dining area, Luke recognized Alex Nicholas seated at a table twenty feet away, and a woman was sitting opposite him. Luke could only see her from the back, but his eyes caught a glimpse of her long black hair and well-formed bare shoulders. She worked out, he thought. Any other time, he would have just stared at those shoulders until someone gave him a dirty look or the guy with her hit him hard in the face.
He felt sick. Everything was moving too fast. His heart was racing, and he needed to sit down quickly to steady his shaking legs.
"What'll ya have, buddy?" asked the bartender. It sounded like an echo to Luke. He was facing away from the bar, taking in the room, stealing a quick glance at Alex's table in the process.
Luke checked his back right pants pocket and could feel the reassuring bulge of his wallet. For the first time I have real money, he thought. I've got a fucking job. He felt a rush of excitement, of energy, like a drug racing through his entire body.
He heard the bartender saying, "Hey, fella," then felt the room closing in on him and sensed faces turning his way. He didn't want to answer, didn't want anyone to hear his voice, his slow southern drawl. Luke looked around. In the periphery of his vision, he could see patrons going about their business, apparently oblivious to his presence. Maybe everyone wasn't watching him after all.
His cell phone was ringing. He opened it and placed it to his ear. The waiting bartender turned away, rolling his eyes. Luke whispered into the phone, "I'm here, at the bar."
"Is he there?" said the voice on the other end of the line.
"Yes, sir. He's having his supper," Luke said, glancing again at Alex and then quickly gazing off in the other direction.
"Luke, we call it dinner here but don't worry about that now. Just do your job. Then, you'll be able to take care of your obligations, and you won't have to worry anymore. Everyone will be proud of you. You'll have work, and you'll have money. Hey, then maybe we'll even find you a girl. I got one in mind for you; she'll even let you use her service elevator. Ha. You understand what I'm saying, Luke?"
"Not exactly. She lives in a high-class building, I guess."
"Oh, Christ. No, it's a type of sex. Never mind, kid. Just get your work done and call me when you're on your way home. I'll teach you everything you need to know."
Luke turned back to face the bar as he imagined having sex in an elevator. Then he caught the attention of the bartender and ordered a Budweiser.
The bartender took a long look at Luke and said, "I gotta see some ID."
Whitestone, Queens, New York 6:15 p.m.
Alex always enjoyed getting his brother on the phone, finding him wherever he was in the world and, however briefly, connecting with him. But tonight he had even more reason to find him.
Alex looked at his watch and then to Maria. "Speaking of Michael, I need to call him tonight before it gets too late. I think he's in Paris."
Alex followed Michael's pursuits and was proud of his brother's achievements. He admired his ability to navigate a world that Alex had only ever seen from the outside. At times, Alex even yearned to live Michael's life. He was certain the feeling wasn't mutual.
Alex was anxious to share his discovery with his brother, but he knew it couldn't be tonight, in front of Maria. In fact, he thought, it was something he had to do face-to-face so Michael could see it with his own eyes. But he could drop a hint, and tonight he would do just that. He had already set in motion a series of other messages to Michael; he knew he was teasing him, but he also needed to ensure that Michael would find Alex's secret should something occur before he had a chance to show it to him.
Almost as an aside, Alex continued speaking while turning on his cell phone and waiting for the indication that he could begin dialing. "We're different. Same fuckin' parents and all, but he's more of a loner, more introverted. He loves books ... He's strange that way. Our whole family would be playing poker or whatever, and Michael would be in his room, reading."
Maria gave a sympathetic smile. "You know, Alex, that's not so odd. He's just different than you that way."
"It's not just that. Listen, I love him, but he's always stayed away from a lot of our family and even some of the friends we both grew up with. These people all ask me about him. 'How's Michael? Where's Michael?' I think some of them follow him through me. I tell them, 'Listen, I don't see him that often myself.' He's a good guy, but I've never been able to really figure him out."
Maria appeared puzzled. "But anytime I've been around him here, he's always very nice, very sociable. He couldn't be that introverted or a loner if he runs a major corporation."
Alex shrugged. He knew Maria was right, but for him, it didn't change the mystery of his brother's personality, a mystery that only those closest to Michael could see.
As Alex looked around the room, that uneasy feeling that someone was watching him returned, despite the otherwise secure sensation he had from being in the familiar confines of his regular hangout.
With his cell phone pressed tightly against his ear, he waited anxiously for Michael to answer. He wondered what the time difference was between Queens and Paris and then felt a flush of relief when he heard his brother's voice.
Excerpted from Death Never Sleeps by E. J. Simon. Copyright © 2013 E. J. Simon. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, LLC.
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