As a hit man, Max Trueblood never left the house without a gun. Now that he’s retired, he doesn’t always pack heat. This is a mistake. When he returns home one day from the grocery store, he finds his apartment broken into and two thugs waiting with a summons from their boss. Trueblood scares them off, but he knows it isn’t over. He is officially unretired.
When mob boss Raphael Tadzio decides he wants Max dead, he taps the up-and-coming hoodlum Jerry Donahue for the job. Despite his infinite self-confidence, Jerry has never killed before. He falters when it’s time to pull the trigger, and he and Max become unlikely friends. When the city’s best hit man joins forces with its worst, organized crime will never be the same.
“[A] smartly written good-buddies adventure.” —The Plain Dealer
“An exciting and unusual story.” —Publishers Weekly
“A heart stopper.” —The New York Times on “Role Model”
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Max Trueblood and the Jersey Desperado
By Teri White
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Teri White
All rights reserved.
It was the first time in forty years that Max Trueblood had been caught without a gun when he needed one.
But who the hell did the grocery shopping with a .357 under his arm?
Even in Manhattan?
For all those years, of course, he had gone everywhere with a weapon strapped to his body—usually more than one, if truth were known. It was a habit that kept him alive. But the other side of habit, the dangerous side, was complacency. That meant getting fat and lazy and doing something stupid. Like picking out fresh artichokes unarmed, which could get a man a fatal dose of lead poisoning.
But dammit all to hell and back, he was retired now. Shouldn't that entitle a man to ease up just a little?
Up until the moment when the morning went bad on him, Max had been feeling fine. He always enjoyed his weekly shopping trip around the neighborhood. This area had been his home for a very long time, for years before it became fashionable or even altogether legal for him to have been living there. When he bought his property, it was cheap and undesirable. A lot had changed in Soho since then, but he didn't mind. Mostly the march of so-called progress just amused him.
All of which was fine and good, but still no reason for stupidity.
Before things went wrong, he was crossing Broome Street when a high, squeaky voice sounded from behind, stopping him at the curb. He turned. "Morning, Buggy."
"Got a sure thing in the fifth today," the midget said. As usual, he was decked out in the manner of a Southern planter of the old school—white suit, Panama hat, cane. He waved a fat black Havana—where the hell did he get them anyway?—at Max. "Pretty little filly named Take A Chance."
Buggy's sure things were never all that sure, but they came through often enough to keep a man hoping, which, of course, was the idea. But Max was in a good mood, so he put five on the filly's nose and sent Buggy away whistling.
As Max moved on he caught a glimpse of himself reflected in a sparkling store window. Not bad for an old man, he decided. Because he still worked out semi-regularly, none of his muscle had turned to flab. Years ago someone had described him as having the build of a Sherman tank, and he thought that still applied. He was just over six feet tall and weighed within twenty-five pounds of what he had at thirty.
Admittedly, the hair on top was mostly gone and what remained was white, but maybe that just made him look distinguished. What mattered most, anyway, was that he took care of himself. Some men retired; they let themselves fall apart. Max saw them all the time, sitting in the park or riding the subways. Frayed sweaters, baggy pants, nothing looking pressed. Hell, they couldn't even be bothered to shave. Those were men who had lost their self-respect. Bums.
That would never happen to Max Trueblood.
Today he was wearing crisp white linen trousers with a knife-sharp crease, a blue pinstriped shirt, and leather sandals. In deference to this unexpected September heat wave he had donned dark glasses and his Dodger baseball cap. The hat looked a little tired because it dated from the days when the Bums still played in Brooklyn, before they moved west and became Hollywood flits.
Well, maybe that was a bit harsh, but Max still carried a grudge.
Crossing Canal Street, he walked until he reached the Vinyl Pizza. The window display had been changed since his last visit, and he paused to examine the brightly colored album covers, realizing somewhat ruefully that not one of the musical groups was familiar. Time moved on.
The small bell above the door sounded its annoyingly cheerful greeting as Max entered. Inside the store it was cool and smelled vaguely of sticky-sweet incense.
"Hiya, Max." Danni—what the hell kind of name was that for a woman, anyway?—appeared from the back room. She was smiling, as always seeming glad to see him. Maybe she treated all her customers that way. Danni wasn't what he would have called pretty, had he bothered to think about it at all, but her sturdy figure wore the jeans and T-shirt well, and her long hair was always pulled back neatly. He didn't know how old she was, probably somewhere in her thirties, but she knew music, even his kind of music. He enjoyed talking to her.
She held up the two earthenware mugs. "Coffee's ready," she said. "See, I can predict just when you'll walk through the door."
They both sat at the small wicker table. "Maybe I'm in a rut," Max said after tasting the coffee. It was instant, of course.
"No, not a rut," she protested. "You're just ... dependable."
He grunted. It sounded like a rut to him, and he didn't like it much.
Danni took a crumpled pack of cigarettes out of a pocket and lit one. She studied him through the cloud of gray-white smoke. "Finally got the Charlie Parker you wanted."
"Good. What about the Bud Powell?"
She shook her head. "Max, can I ask you something?"
"I guess so."
"If a woman wanted to go to bed with you, what would be the best way for her to go about arranging it?"
Max felt a rush of blood to his face. He took a too-large gulp of the coffee, burning the roof of his mouth. Most of the women he'd been with in his life had been whores. And the few who hadn't been were never so direct about things. "I must be twice your age," he managed to say finally.
"Not quite. And what's that got to do with anything, anyway?"
Max didn't like conversations that got so personal. He made a point, had always made a point, of avoiding them. Part of the reason was survival, of course. In his line of work, the fewer people who knew about him and the less they knew, the better. But there was more to it than that, even. He was simply a private person, unused to expressing feelings or sharing much of himself with others. After so many years of being a solitary man Max wasn't sure that he would know how to get close to someone like Danni, even if he wanted to. Their worlds were too different.
How the hell had he allowed things to get to this point? Jesus, he was really slipping. He put the mug down carefully and reached for his wallet. "Better let me pay for that record and get out of here."
Danni bit her lower lip. After a moment she stood and went to the cash register. Neither spoke as they exchanged cash and album.
"See you next week," Max said as he headed for the door.
"Will you?" She sounded doubtful.
He managed a small smile. "Maybe you'll have the Powell by then."
"Maybe." She returned the smile, and Max left the store.
He wasn't sure he'd really go back.
He lived in a loft that had once been part of a pillow factory. The first floor of the building was now an art gallery, operated by a guy named Paul Something, a Polish name that Max could never remember, even though he saw it every month on the rent checks the man gave him. The gallery itself specialized in Eastern European handicrafts. Max didn't mind the stuff; it surely beat some of the garbage that passed for art in many of the galleries in the area.
The loft was reached by a curved flight of heavy iron steps on the outside of the building.
At the top of the stairs there was a small landing, and Max paused there to shift the packages he was holding and reach for the key.
Then he stopped, standing very still, not even breathing.
And wishing to hell that he had a gun.
Stupid, lazy old man.
The door wasn't closed all the way. After cursing himself roundly for perhaps thirty seconds Max considered just what to do next.
In that length of time he realized just how angry he was. No one had ever invaded his home before. No one had dared. Why did they now? Did they think that because Max Trueblood had quit working he would be an easy target? He got madder.
All that anger made him do the second stupid thing of the morning.
Max kicked the door open with one foot and charged inside. By all the rules of God and man he should have been dead almost immediately. But surprisingly, no one blasted him.
Two men were sitting on the large sofa that nearly filled one corner of the vast room. Max didn't know them. With his foot he pushed the door closed again. If they had been planning to kill him, they would have done it by now.
"What the hell are you doing in my place?" he asked quietly.
One of the men was black, wearing a gray suit that looked expensive and a narrow tie. His shoes gleamed. "Mr. Marberg sent us," he said in a voice that held a soft Jamaican accent.
"Is that supposed to mean something to me?" Max walked over to the counter that separated the living room from the kitchen and put his purchases down. As he moved, his gaze never left the two men.
The second intruder was a skinny redhead. "Mr. Marberg's name better mean something, old man," he said. His oversized Adam's apple bobbed as he spoke.
A funny guy, Marberg. Only a man with a real sense of humor would team up the colored boy in the fancy clothes and this shit kicker who sounded about three hours out of Dixie. Max shook his head, smiling faintly. "Must be hard to get good help these days," he said. "Sam Marberg used to hire gorillas with manners." He took off his sunglasses, folded them, and put them down, safely out of the way. They were good glasses, expensive, and he didn't want them broken if anything happened. And maybe something was going to happen.
Red wanted very much to say something, but he was stopped by a warning look from the other man. The lump in his throat bobbed again as he swallowed the comment.
"Mr. Marberg wants to see you," the Jamaican said. "He sent us to get you."
"To get me?" Max thought about that for a moment, then decided that he didn't like the implication much. Instead of telling them that, however, he just started unpacking the produce. "Nice tomatoes today," he commented. "That Viet guy gets good stuff." He walked over to the fridge and put the fruit and vegetables away in the crisper. Before closing the door, he took out a beer. He didn't offer his visitors anything. "Uh, listen, uh—"
"Donald," the Islander said.
"Donald. Good. I like to know who it is I'm inviting to get the hell out of my place."
"That might not be the wise thing for you to do."
Max murmured an Italian obscenity, which, since this was New York, both the Jamaican and the hillbilly seemed to understand.
Donald only smiled a little, but his partner turned a mottled pink color that clashed with his hair. "We don't have to take this shit from a prick like you."
"You don't have to do a damned thing except leave."
"The boss ain't gonna like this."
"I don't really care one way or the other what he does or doesn't like. He's your boss, boys, not mine."
Donald listened to the exchange, then shook his head in apparent dismay. "We're only doing a job, man." Except that when he said it, the word came out mon.
Max opened a cupboard to take out a heavy glass mug, then he walked over to the dining table and sat down. "See, that's the difference between you and me. One of them, anyway. I don't work for Marberg now. I don't work for anybody, because I'm retired. Which means that I don't have to put up with aggravation like this anymore."
Red sneered. "I don't know why the boss wants to see you, anyway. Old man."
Max smiled. "Probably he wants me because I'm very good. And there isn't anybody around as good today." He let his gaze move over them slowly, at the same time dropping one hand and slipping it under the long, fringed serape that served as a tablecloth. "At least, he doesn't seem to have anybody that good on his payroll."
Once again Donald stopped the other man with a glance. "You should come talk to him. You owe him that much, at least."
"I don't owe Sam Marberg or anybody else a goddamned thing. I always gave full measure to the people I worked for. Now I'm retired. He should know that already, but maybe you boys better remind him." Max poured the beer. "Ever have a Taddy Porter? Looks like Coke, doesn't it? A good brew. But sort of costly. Maybe after you fellows work for Marberg or somebody just like Marberg for forty years, you'll be able to afford it. If you live that long."
As Max spoke the final words he brought his hand out from under the serape. In it he held a .357 Combat revolver. He pointed it at Red. "That's a handy little shelf I built under this table. Guess you didn't notice it because of the fancy Mexican cloth. Nice gun, too, right? Just in case your vocational training classes didn't mention it, this particular weapon holds six bullets. And the last time I tried, I could still get them off pretty fast. Fast enough, anyway."
"You are being very foolish," Donald said.
"Well, when a man gets to be my age, he's entitled. Now get the hell out of here. Tell Marberg that the next time he sends a couple of half-assed punks around here to bother me, he just might get them back in a slightly damaged condition. If at all. Got that?"
Donald tipped his head in a slight nod. "We will deliver the message." He stood slowly, careful not to make any sudden moves that a man with a gun might misinterpret, and after a moment Red followed suit.
"This ain't nowhere's near finished, old man."
Max smiled again but didn't say anything. The barrel of the revolver followed them across the room and out the door. He got up quickly and threw all three locks into place. After a few seconds he could hear the pounding of their feet going down the stairs.
Only then did he replace the gun on the shelf.
He put the Charlie Parker on the stereo, turning the volume up high. Paul Whatever downstairs never complained about the noise. When all the fancy dials on the machine were set to their best advantage, Max sat down with the Taddy Porter again.
It was enough to make a man thoughtful.CHAPTER 2
Kasdan didn't believe him at first.
The attorney just looked at him from the other side of the big glass-topped desk and smiled. The smile wore a nasty edge. "Mr. Tadzio doesn't meet with the hired help," he said.
"Is that why he has you?" Jeremiah responded.
Then he bit his tongue. Damn, don't alienate him. Jeremiah didn't like lawyers, or guys who talked like they'd been to Yale, especially when he knew damned well that Erik Kasdan had grown up in Brooklyn and graduated from NYU. But right now he needed the bastard. Idiot that he was, the lawyer was his only direct pipeline to Tadzio.
So he smiled to cover the crack and didn't complain about the label of "hired help." Which, strictly speaking, he supposed was true. For the time being, at least. "Couldn't you just pass along the message that I'd like to meet with him? He's missing out on a good bet if he won't at least do that much."
Kasdan took a cigarette from a slender silver case, not offering him one. "A good bet? By which, I suppose, you mean yourself?"
"Damned right. Look, Kasdan, I'm wasted where I am now." Which was mostly nowhere, they both knew, but nobody said so.
"A small-time crook with ambition. That could be dangerous."
Jeremiah shook his head. "I'm not dangerous, for chrissake. All I am is a man who wants a chance. Just a try for my cut of the good life, like they talk about in the beer commercials. I've been out in the trenches for a fucking long time, Kasdan."
It seemed like forever, in fact, and he was tired of it. Tired of being paid out of petty cash. Of living like a loser. Jeremiah leaned forward a little in the chair. "Didn't I come through when Mr. Tadzio needed me? Twice?" There was no need for him to cite specifics; Kasdan knew damned well what he was talking about.
Kasdan was quiet as he smoked the cigarette and leaned back to stare at the ceiling. Finally he came forward and looked at Jeremiah. "Okay, Donahue. It's just barely possible that you might have a valid point."
Barely fucking possible. The bastard. He could remember when Erik Kasdan, Esq., was running all over the city carrying numbers slips in a brown paper sack.
But Jeremiah kept a smile on his face.
"Flash and ambition," Kasdan said. "It might work out to everybody's advantage. Let me see what I can do. No promises, you understand, but I'll talk to Mr. Tadzio and find out what he thinks. We all remember the good work you did on those two occasions."
Jeremiah let his stomach muscles relax for the first time since he'd come into Kasdan's office. He was over the first hurdle.
He was on his way.
The meeting with Kasdan had been two days ago, and tonight it was about to pay off. His big chance had arrived.
Excerpted from Max Trueblood and the Jersey Desperado by Teri White. Copyright © 1987 Teri White. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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