Do Me a Favor
Hustling college art students was not much of a challenge, and didn’t provide any real income. They were always broke and wanted to play for beers. After seven or eight beers my break shot lost some of its oomph anyway. Besides, my big tournament paydays were over since losing the sight in my left eye. Depth perception is a must have in this game, so when Dotty waved the phone receiver at me from behind her bar I called it a night. I unscrewed my Lucasi custom cue and laid it into the velour lined alligator hard case. Setting it on the bar I picked up the phone. A voice I knew was squeaking out of it.
“What the fuck Trip, you takin’ a dump or sumthin’?”
It was Carl, a former associate of mine, an occasional pain in the ass, but also my savior. Carl Ray was the reason I could still walk upright in Philadelphia, or Cherry Hill, or Atlantic City for that matter. It was in AC when we first met in a hotel elevator. I had broken the hustler’s rule of not staying where you’re playing. My usual cheap motel was booked and it was the Christmas season so I treated myself to a room at the Sands Casino Hotel. I had taken nearly two grand from a Filipino businessman who actually thought he could win back his money if he kept playing. He finally took the hint and called it quits, counting out my winnings while a snarl twitched his wispy little mustache. I watched him take a quick but unsteady path towards the lobby. I followed a few minutes later and that’s where everything went wrong. I got on the big, mirrored elevator alone and pressed for the sixth floor. It stopped at three and the door opened on a hulking guy in an ill-fitting off the rack suit who stepped past me to the back. I did the polite thing being near the buttons.
“What floor, pal?”
I half turned to him and in the tiny molecule of time where I realized he looked just like Odd Job in “Goldfinger”, he sapped me in the head, putting me on the floor, breaking my left orbital bone and (as I found out later) severing my optic nerve. I lay there as his large shadow passed over me and tiny sharp stars swirled in my brain. A moment later someone put an Old Spice scented handkerchief against my bleeding face and told me not to move. That someone was Carl Ray.
Carl was a balding white man who weighed one-fifty soaking wet and was not much to look at, but his rep for brutal efficiency was legendary. Like Billy Martin, the pugilistic Yankee’s ex- manager. Perhaps Carl had mellowed a bit over the years. Maybe we both had. His voice came in loud and clear. I took a breath and spoke into the phone.
“Just shooting some eight ball, Carl. What’s up?”
“Do me a favor, Trip, if you’re not too busy.”
His request reached all the way down the bar to Dotty who slowly shook her head as she brought me the customary icy bottle of Rolling Rock and shot of Jameson. I guess my debt to Carl would never be repaid in full and I gave in.
“No problem man, what do you need?”
“I’ll be parked at the corner in five, come out the side door.”
Even as a kid Carl was more than a little crazy. The old-timers in South Philly claimed he had doused alley cats with gasoline and lit them up just to watch the balls of fire careening down the streets. He was still crazy, but crazy with a purpose. There are plenty of unsolved heists that Carl dreamed up too numerous to mention.
Dot’s Café had what used to be called a ladies entrance like most saloons back in the day. Carl’s long white ’64 Chevy Impala looked like spoiled cheese in the streetlight. The engine was running as I got in the front seat. Like all the grownup juvenile delinquents I knew, Carl had removed the dome light so the car remained dark when any door was opened. Carl grinned and his gold front tooth pulsed like a firefly in the streetlight. His whole body was vibrating, a human tuning fork, high on something as usual.
“You like the new scent?”
The entire car actually smelled like warm apple pie. Prior scents had been pina colada and strawberry wine. The pie wasn’t bad.
“It’s nice. Can I have a piece with a cup of coffee?”
“Fuck that, we got a job to do!”
Carl pulled slowly to the corner of Old York Road and turned south, rolling past the shitty row houses filled with college kids. We hung a right to Broad Street and headed toward downtown Philly. Old William Penn, with his back to us, stood guard on top of city hall miles away.
Carl giggled and drummed on the big red steering wheel.
“Trip, my man, you are on your way to meet a rich and famous person!”
Coming from Carl that could mean damn near anything. He continued his paradiddles on the steering wheel as beads of sweat sprouted on his balding head. He was wired, but I was tired and not in the mood for games.
“Who am I going to meet?”
“I’ll tell ya in a minute. Have a cigarette!”
“No thanks, I quit.”
“Light one for me, then.”
A pack of Camels and a book of matches were on the wide dash in front of me. I shook one out, lit it and passed it to Carl. He tossed it out the window.
“Look at the matches, Trip. What do you see?”
I saw the Pep Boys, Manny, Moe and Jack grinning and waving.
“Okay, it’s the auto parts guys, so what?”
I wasn’t getting it. Carl explained it.
“They’re rich and famous, right?”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
“Well, you’re about to meet one of them.”
Carl tipped his head toward the back of the car.
“Manny. He’s in the trunk!”
My breath caught as my balls tried crawling into my stomach and I stuttered for the first time in over thirty years.
“W-W-What? Oh fuck, are you serious?”
“Serious as cock cancer, my man!”
I looked again at the matchbook and a small tremor took hold of my hand.
“Carl, these guys aren’t real. They’re, like, cartoons!”
“Tell that to the man in my trunk.”
Carl was no longer laughing or even smiling, both bad signs.
I spent the next ten minutes wondering what my prison cell would look like. Darkened row houses rolled past, the Impala’s tires hissing like snakes in the rain all the way to South Philly. We hung a left on Washington, drove past Snockey’s Oyster and Crab House and parked around the corner on Second Street.
Carl killed the engine.
“I am starvin’ Marvin, I gotta eat. You hungry Trip?”
“Carl, hold on a second.”
I put both hands on the dash to steady myself.
“Is he dead?”
“I hope not.”
Carl tossed me the keys as he got out.
“Check on him, I’m going in.”
I should have put the keys on the seat and run like hell but I wanted to know if Carl was for real. Practical jokes were not his style and he had just scared the shit out of me. If this was for real, Carl had gone way beyond high-jacking truckloads of steaks or stereos. I needed to see for myself.
They say you can fix anything with duct tape. You can also ruin a good pair of shoes with it. I keyed the lock and slowly lifted the trunk lid about six inches, enough to see a shiny pair of Florsheims duct-taped tightly together, the tape wrapping up and around someone’s ankles. The feet twitched a little. I raised the trunk another six inches. Carl had used a shitload of tape. It just kept going, around and around up past the knees. I let the trunk complete its rise and saw a small man, white, maybe sixty, with Brylcreemed dark hair, round black framed glasses, taped all the way up to his shoulders. He was breathing fast through his nose because his mouth was taped, too. The fucking guy did look just like Manny. His glasses were too fogged up to see his eyes. Just then a deep male baritone voice floated out of the dark near the front of the car.
“Hey man, you got a light?”
A very big black dude wearing a Moses Malone 76ers jersey held his huge hands out to the side as if to block a shot or a pass. Fat chance of that. I lowered the trunk and pressed it down gently until I felt it catch, and then saw the other guy. Not as big, but just as black, calm and cool, a lit cigarette drooping from his lower lip. They obviously had no real need for a match. Big Black Dude spoke again.
I must have hesitated a little too long because Cool Black Dude reached behind his back into his waistband for something. Something blue-grey with a five inch barrel that he casually aimed at my face. Being jumpy around guns for the simple reason that they tend to go off, I soft tossed the keys to his pal. These guys were good. Calm, smooth, no muss, no fuss. He actually smiled at me as he slipped behind the wheel. I would have paid to see that smile vanish when they got around to opening the trunk of their newly acquired classic Chevy Impala. I stood in the drizzle watching them drive north and wondered how far they would get before they got hip to their unwanted passenger. The odds were pretty good they wouldn’t hurt him. Even hard guys would need a reason for that. They would probably wipe down the wheel, dash and door handles, and blend into the night. Who knows, Carl might even get his car back. But first I had to duck into Snockey’s and give him the bad news. The fragrance of buttery oyster stew instantly sharpened my appetite. I spotted Carl at a table for two against the far back wall. He wore a huge paper lobster bib and was pouring a glass of Dom Perignon. He looked ridiculous. He was chewing a mouthful of lobster, his chin slick with drawn butter, jabbing towards the empty chair opposite him with his fork. I sat down and cleared my throat.
“Carl, you are not going to believe this.”
He kept chewing.
“I just got jacked by two spades. Your car is gone.”
He swallowed, wiped his chin and took a big gulp of champagne, waving away what I had said as if it had no importance.
“Trip, let’s give them about five minutes.”
What the fuck? I was stumped.
“I got a fuel pump cut-off switch under the seat. Those dumb fucks will run out of gas right about now”
I was still half in the dark.
“I don’t need a pain in the ass car alarm waking the whole neighborhood. With no gas, they goin’ nowhere.”
“Okay, so what do we do now?”
“We call a cab.”
Something about the steamy, buttery air was turning my stomach and I was glad to be standing outside in the coolness of the rain washed night. It wasn’t long before a gypsy cab pulled up, nearly climbing the curb in front of us. We piled in the back and I looked at the driver’s photo on the dash. He was Raj Marumder, young, likely fresh off the boat, and wearing the frozen apprehensive smile of a stranger in a strange land. Carl started in on him just for fun.
“Hey Raj, you ever been to Calcutta?”
“No. Actually I’ve never been to India.”
“So where you from, Raj”?
“I’m from Tenafly, New Jersey”
Carl laugh-coughed and pounded the seat, wheezing garlic breath.
“HA HA! Oh Raj, that’s good, you almost had me!”
Raj hunched closer to the wheel staring straight ahead.
“Where to, sir?”
Carl had not fully recovered from his own wisecrack and was dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief, laughing like he would bust a gut, so I stepped up.
“Okay, Raj, we need you to head north to the Badlands.
“Do you mean like Kensington?”
“Yeah, around there, and Fairhill, too.”
Raj scratched his chin and shot us a worried glance in the rearview mirror while Carl blew his nose, trumpeting into his handkerchief.
“It’s cool, Raj, just do like my man says and keep an eye out for a white 64’Impala down the side streets, and don’t drive too fast.”
We rolled on in the rain, a little too slowly perhaps. Carl was making every effort not to lose his cool, but from the way his knees were pumping up and down I knew some bad shit would happen, whether we found his car or not. At least Raj was dark skinned and the back windows were tinted. We would need that kind of cover where we were going. I was also sincerely hoping to get back my very expensive custom cue that I’d left on Carl’s back seat, but I kept that to myself.
After ten minutes of slow cruising, we crossed York Street into Glenwood, which was mostly Dominican, the rain keeping most residents inside. Carl elbowed me and looked over with raised eyebrows.
“No man, they weren’t island dudes, just regular Americans.”
“Well then, where the fuck are they?” Where’s my goddamn car?”
At the next red light Raj spoke up, barely audible.
“Do you want me to go straight?”
Carl was losing it.
“Fuck no! Make a left and stop at Broad Street.”
Things were not going well and Raj was getting rattled. A dispatcher’s voice suddenly barked from the radio demanding a destination address. While Carl cursed and Raj fumbled with his handset, I saw a figure moving towards us from the alley on the left. It lurched into our headlights and Raj screamed, jamming on the brakes, heaving Carl and I against the plexi-glass divider. It was a monster from a horror movie, teetering in the rain, one arm reaching for the car, wet, grey mummy bandages hanging off it that looked remarkably like duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape.
Parked in the dark alley was Carl’s Impala, the hood and trunk standing wide open. Carl sprang from the cab scrambling for his car. Raj freaked out, shouting at me,
“WHAT IS HAPPENING HERE?”
I jammed two twenties into the pay slot. Manny the mummy had collapsed on the opposite curb, blinking blindly into the rain, tearing at the tape, his glasses gone.
“He’s your next fare, Raj - just take him anywhere he wants to go!”
As I bailed out of the cab, Raj took off, fishtailing down Broad Street. Carl was circling his car, searching for damage and caressing it tenderly. Manny was flopping like a fish trying to unwind the duct tape. I was losing my mind but didn’t give a shit. I got Manny to his feet and walked him to the Impala, easing him into the back seat. I got in front. Carl shut the hood, ran to the driver’s door, slipping behind the wheel.
“Who the fuck is that, Trip?”
Carl was way higher than I thought he was.
“It’s cool man, he’s with us. How’s the car?”
Carl pulled a spare key from somewhere and fired it up.
“I’m gonna get those fuckers!”
The Impala slewed sideways and bottomed out, showering sparks as we bumped onto Dauphin Avenue. Something hard poked me in the back of the head.
“Let me out or I’ll shoot!”
Manny had opened my cue case and was aiming the back half of it at me, then Carl, then me again.
Out of habit, I put my hands up.
“Be cool, Manny. That’s not a gun, it’s a billiard cue.”
“My names not Manny, it’s Sheldon, and why did you guys kidnap me?”
Naturally, we both looked to Carl for the answer but Carl was busy driving, hunched over the wheel grinning like Dracula’s movie pal Renfield. We stopped at a red light on Susquehanna Avenue. A green Gypsy cab pulled up on our right. I looked over at the driver. It was our boy Raj. He had taken off with my forty bucks and I wanted it back. He looked at me, his face a mask of pure frozen panic. I got out of Carl’s Impala. As I reached for the cab’s back door handle the window wound down slowly and Big Black Dude gave me a lazy look that turned to blind rage in an instant. The light turned green and Raj took off, burning rubber and leaving Carl, me, and Manny/Sheldon far behind. I shouted to Carl.
“Holy shit, Carl, those were the guys!”
Carl leapt out of the Impala, ripping open the back door and dragging Manny/Sheldon out by the neck, throwing him to the pavement. He grabbed my cue and case, dumping them on Manny/Sheldon and dove behind the wheel and the chase was on. I could have sworn there were flames shooting out of the dual exhaust as the Impala vanished down Susquehanna.
The rain had stopped. I picked up my cue and rubbed it as dry as I could on my shirt before setting it in the case. Manny/Sheldon got to his hands and knees and I hoisted him to his feet.
“You okay, pal?”
“I guess so, but I can’t see a thing. I lost my glasses.”
I took his arm and walked him to the sidewalk.
“How about that guy, huh? Kidnapping two people at the same time!”
He clutched at my arm.
“Yeah, me too, but we’re safe now, Sheldon. He’s gone. That’s your name right?”
“Yes, yes, it is, and you are?”
“Pete, just call me Pete. Listen Sheldon, walk with me. I know a place not far, they make good sandwiches and we can dry off and get warm. Come on, take my arm.”
We walked about three blocks before I remembered something.
“I think they have a pool table, Sheldon. Do you play?”