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Primo and I sat facing Mario and Dante in Mario’s office. Between us lay a table with a shoebox on it.

“Dante’s got another job for you two,” Mario said. “You work so well together, beauty and the beast.”

Dante said, “We leased a retail storefront in a strip mall to a large Filipino family with gang connections. The men are unpredictable and dangerous. The women run a nail salon in front with a massage parlor behind. There’s a third room in back. I got a tip they’re running drugs out of it. Bad news if it’s true. If the LAPD or Feds bust them, they’ll prosecute me for leasing to drug distributors.”

“What do you want us to do?” Primo said.

“Get inside and check it out, early morning, when no one’s there.” He tossed Primo a set of keys.

“Will these work?” Primo said.

“They should, unless they changed the locks.”

“What if we run into someone?”

“Check it out before you enter. If you hear voices, TV, radio you’ll know someone’s there, can it and we’ll try another night or find some other way to look inside that back room.” He opened the shoebox. Inside were two well-worn M1911 Colt semi-automatics, magazines, and a box of .45 caliber ammo. “Take these in case there’s any trouble. Drop them if something happens. Wear gloves, dark clothes, and hat. John knows about this job, guys. It’s real important. Don’t fuck up. This job’s a little trickier than the last one so I’ll pay you double, $1,000 apiece.”

“Tonight okay?” Primo said.

“The sooner the better,” Dante said.

#

At 2 a.m., Primo was driving us to the nail salon in one of Mario’s unmarked Ford sedans. Primo said, “This job’s a piece of cake if no one’s there, just in and out, job’s done. If gangbangers are there, we could be in for some serious shit. How does that make you feel, college boy?”

“I’m okay, Primo.” An honest answer would be I felt fear mixed with excitement and anticipation. I did not know what I was getting into or what might happen.

Primo drove slowly past the front of the strip mall. No lights were on in the salon or any of the other businesses. A pickup and two battered cars were parked in front of a bar. Mario parked beside the pickup.

We went to the front of the salon and looked through the window. It was dark inside but we could see light peeking out from beneath a door at the far end of a hallway in back.

“What do you think?” Primo said.

“Might be someone back there.”

“Maybe they left the light on.”

“Let’s go back there and take a look.”

We circled the mall, walked along the back until we came to a reinforced steel door. A textured glass window protected by wire mesh beside it glowed from an interior light. I could smell a faint toxic odor and looked for its source. A vent was visible in the roof. I put my ear against the mesh and could hear men’s voices talking softly in Tagalog. I summoned Primo to follow me and walked along the back of the mall to get out of hearing distance. “A couple of Filipino guys are in there brewing drugs.”

“How do you know?”

“I heard two men speaking Tagalog and I could smell chemicals.”

“I didn’t hear nothing or smell nothing. What the fuck’s Tagalog?”

“It’s a common language in the Philippines.”

“How do you know that?”

“I knew Filipinos who spoke it.”

“Shit, man. It’s a nail salon. You probably smelled polish or remover.”

“You see the vent in the roof?” I pointed.

“So what? That don’t mean a thing. I say we go in there, check it out like Dante said.”

“He said, if someone’s inside to can it and come back another night.”

“Are you shitting me, man? If we don’t do this job, Mario and Dante will think we’re slackers. Fuck it. I’m going in.” He took off, walking.

I followed him at a distance, wondering what to do. He was pigheaded and it was no use arguing with him at this point. He was determined to enter the salon and didn’t care if I came with him. I had to back him up.

He put the key in the front door lock and turned it, click.

“Go softly now,” I whispered.

Primo pointed his flashlight into the darkness, walking slowly through the salon, past the chairs and tables, into the dark hallway, slowing as he advanced step by step to the end, and then stopping. He put his ear against the door, then turned to me and nodded. He pulled his .45 from his belt; I followed suit.

He turned the knob and opened the door, revealing two Filipino men sitting at a table smoking cigarettes and playing dominoes. One of the men reached for a chrome .45 semi-automatic on the table.

“Don’t touch it!” Primo shouted.

The man pulled his hand away from the .45. “What you want?”

“Fuck you!” said the other man, suddenly reaching for a beer bottle and tossing it at Primo. Primo ducked, aimed his .45, and shot him in the forehead. The back of his head showered brain fragments and blood against a wall, his body tumbling backward on his falling chair.

An instant later, the first man grabbed the .45 and pointed it at Primo. Without thinking, I shot him in the ear. His body flipped sideways onto the floor.

“Aw, shit,” Primo moaned. “This is a fucking mess. Let’s get out of here before the cops come.”

“There’s a cashbox on the table, Primo. Check it out.”

Primo stared at me, eyes glazed.

I opened the cashbox: stacks of neatly wrapped one-hundred dollar bills.

“How much?” Primo said.

“Plenty. Count it later.”

A table contained bottles of ether, acetone, ephedrine, and several other lab chemicals and solvents. The men had rigged a gas barbecue for cooking meth with a crude exhaust pipe venting through the roof.

“What the fuck’re we gonna do, Joey?”

“Toss your gun on the floor and take the cashbox to the car. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“What’re you . . .”

“Go!”

Primo took the cashbox and disappeared down the hallway.

I dropped my .45, and then opened several bottles of ether and acetone, poured them out onto the floor, picked up the packet of matches on the table, backed out of the room, half closed the door, struck a match, and tossed it in.

The fumes ignited instantaneously in an explosion that blew the door open and threw me halfway down the hallway. I got up, ran to the door and out to the car, and got in. Primo hit the gas and we were out of there. As I looked back, flames were engulfing the back of the salon.

We were racing through empty streets at eighty miles an hour. “Slow down, Primo!”

He glanced at me for an instant, then eyes back on the road. “What the fuck, man. What the fuck.” He slowed down. Soon the sound of sirens, and then flashing lights coming toward us in the opposite lane.

“That was exciting,” I said. “What do you think, Primo?”

“I think you’re fucking crazy, Joey. That’s what I think. How’re we gonna explain that to Dante?”

“It’s a fucking meth lab, man. All those chemicals, accidents are bound to happen. Lucky we got there after they blew the place up.”

“Huh?”

“Drive, Primo. I’ll explain later.”

#

We were sitting in a booth at an all-night McDonald’s. I was facing a cup of coffee, Primo a Big Mac, fries, and chocolate shake.

“How can you eat that stuff after what we’ve been through?” I said.

“Eat is what I do when I’m confuzzled, Joey. It’s the only way to fix my gut. Someone’s gotta call Mario and explain what happened.” He took a huge bite out of his burger and chewed away.

“I’m the newbie. You’re the senior guy. It’s your job.”

“Out here I’m senior because I been working for Mario longer. You outrank me at Bunga West.”

“You want me to talk to the man?”

“You got a way with words. Do me a favor and explain how that fuckup happened before someone else tells him his rental burned to the fucking ground.”

“How much was in the cashbox?”

“Fifty-two thousand.”

“That’s real nice.”

“Yeah.” He dipped a fist full of french fries in catsup and shoved them into his mouth. Chewing away, Primo appeared thoughtful, a novel sight. “Mario will pay you $1,000 for that job if you can convince him what happened wasn’t our fault. I’ll give you $10,000 from the cashbox if you call Mario. You’ll score $11,000. Will that grease your skids?”

I sipped my coffee. “I risked my life in there, almost got shot. I coulda got shot. Probably saved your life. We never shoulda gone in there in the first place. I warned you what was in there and you didn’t believe me. It was entirely your fault we got into that fucking mess.”

“Are you negotiating?”

I sipped my coffee.

Primo said, “Suppose we split the cashbox 50/50 this time instead of 60/40 like last time.”

“You think you deserve it? We both coulda died, two innocent crooks did for sure, and the god damn salon went up in flames.”

He took the last bite of his burger, grabbed the remaining fries, dipped them in catsup, and crammed them into his gob.

“It makes me sick, watching you eat, Primo.”

“Stop with the insults and tell me what you want.”

“I’ll take 60/40 but this time I get the sixty and you get the forty.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, picked up a napkin, dabbed his lips, and grinned. “You win. Fuck, that’s a load off my mind. I think I’ll have another round while you make that important phone call, Joey.”

I called Mario at home at 4:30 a.m. The phone rang several times before he answered. “Hey, Mario, this is Joey. Sorry to call you so early in the morning but I thought you’d want to know. Primo and I went over to do that job for you, but when we got there the place was on fire. We stopped to see what happened. One of the firemen said someone had been manufacturing drugs in that place and somehow it caught on fire. Tell him his tip about those guys was right.”

Mario groaned. “I’ll tell Dante.”

#

On Sunday evening, as I was sitting in my usual place at the bar, Dante came in and sat next to me. “How’re you doing, Joey?” .

“I’m doing fine, Dante. Sorry what happened to your nail salon.”

“Yeah, that was sure something. It burned to the ground. Lucky we had insurance. The fire department found what they said were the remains of two men in back, all those chemicals, it burned so hot it cremated ‘em.” He laughed. “What a way to go. Know what that proves?”

“Tell me.”

“Crime doesn’t pay, Joey.” He laughed.

End

bio: Henry Simpson is the author of several novels, two short story collections, many book reviews, and occasional pieces in literary journals. His most recent novel is Golden Girl (Newgame, 2017).

 

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