He woke up with a throbbing headache, as if his brain had grown too large for his skull, with dry mouth to boot.
It was to be expected the morning after his 18th birthday. He lay still and stared at the ceiling for a long while before painfully sitting up. Jake slowly made his way towards the kitchen. He could smell it the moment he opened the door, his dad’s anti-hangover breakfast.
‘Hey kiddo,’ Daniel Winters said as he pulled the last strips of bacon off the pan. Jake could let out little more than a groan in response as he dropped himself into a chair and lay his head down on the cold granite kitchen bench.
Daniel placed a plate of eggs, sausages, bacon and pancakes in front of his youngest son along with a glass of OJ.
‘Protein, grease, calcium and sugar. It’ll get you straight,’ Daniel said.
‘Bucket,’ Jake said. Daniel laughed. ‘Seriously. Bucket, now,’ Jake repeated. Daniel acted quickly, grabbed a bucket from under the kitchen sink and threw it to his son. Jake caught it and instantly emptied the majority of the previous nights drinks into it.
‘Sorry,’ Jake said.
‘Don’t sweat it, just means you did it right,’ Daniel replied. ‘Me and Patch are heading out of town for a few days. Fred, you remember Fred? He needs a hand with something.’
‘Alright,’ Jake said as he rinsed his mouth out in the sink.
‘Finish that plate and wait half an hour, you’ll feel right as rain. Tell your brothers I said to go easy on you today,’ Daniel said as he slung his large black bag over his shoulder. He rubbed his hand through his son's thick brown hair, gave him a kiss on the head and made his way out the door.
Jake stared at the mound of food before him and started picking at it, Bacon first. He forced himself through half of it before giving up.
He took a shower and got dressed, eyed himself in the mirror.
You ready? Because today’s the day.
You’re old enough.
Ariel city, born and raised, Jake and his brothers.
Although Daniel thought of all three of them as his sons, only two of them had his blood. Charlie and Jake Winters were birthed by the love of Daniel’s life, Jillian, now the loss of Daniel’s life.
Harry Henderson, the third ‘brother’, had been taken in by their family at a young age, young enough for any prior memories to be a cocktail of tortured facts and the exaggerated fiction of a growing boy's imagination. The line between where he really came from and what his mind had created over the years had been blurry for a long time now.
The fresh air from the stroll dulled Jake's headache.
He made his way up Sherwin Road and offered a greeting to the familiar faces he passed along the way. The whole neighborhood knew the Winters boys, and the whole neighborhood loved them. Of course, what’s that thing about there’s always exceptions to the rule?
Jake reached the apartment and glanced across the road through the large front windows of, Dempsey’s, their local Irish bar. The place he’d been drinking the night before, a place which he and his brothers would frequent when there was nothing else to do. The fact that Jake was underage had never stopped them from serving him a drink. Like I said, everybody loved the Winter’s boys. And they earned it.
Jake made his way up the stairs of the apartment building and found the door to Charlie and Harry’s place open. He walked in.
The kitchen to his left and the living room ahead of him were both empty. He heard the familiar sounds of billiard balls clashing and made his way towards the game room.
‘Twenty?’ Harry asked.
‘Fifty,’ Charlie replied.
Jake walked in to see the shirtless and thick-chested Harry––with a Roman Numeral II tattooed on the right side of his torso––with a beer in his hand and a few days growth on his face. Harry leaned on his pool cue and waited for Charlie to take his shot.
Charlie––who had the same tattoo in the same place, except his was an I––was the tallest of the three, handsome guy, brown hair a little darker than Jake’s.
He took his shot and sunk it.
‘Mornin’ princess,’ Harry said.
‘Afternoon,’ Jake replied.
‘How you feelin’?’
‘Like a basket of rainbows, thanks for asking.’––Read: you force fed me a quarter bottle of tequila, asshole. ‘I want in.’
‘After I wipe the floor with Harry,’ Charlie said as he lined up another shot, ‘you can be next.’
‘Not talking pool. You know what I mean. You said when I turn eighteen, when I’m old enough to join the army, I’m old enough to join you guys. So I repeat, I want in,’ Jake repeated. ‘Is there a job today?’
‘Easy speedy, this isn’t a frat club. You can’t just drink till you piss yourself, make out with a fatty, wax your nuts and call yourself an Alpha Beta Douchebag. You’ve got to earn it,’ Harry said.
‘What is it we do?’ Charlie asked.
‘You do favours for people.’
‘So does a crack-whore. What do we do?’
‘You help people. People who can’t help themselves. That’s what I want to do too.’
‘You don’t need our permission. Go do it. Don’t follow, lead.’
‘What do I do?’
‘Find someone with a problem, then help them fix it,’ Charlie said.
‘Where do I start?’ Jake asked.
Harry tossed a newspaper to him. ‘That’s as good a place as any. Now do me a favour and fetch me another beer.’
Jake went to grab them a couple more beers when Charlie’s phone rang.
‘Hey Charlie, it’s Theo.’ There was something to his voice, something they had learned to pick up pretty easily. It was fear.
‘Hey Theo. What’s up?’
‘I need a favour.’
Charlie put the phone on speaker and placed it on the pool table so Harry could hear. Jake stopped and listened too.
‘Run us through it,’ Charlie said.
‘I owe someone some money.’
‘And you don’t have it?’ Charlie asked.
‘No, I have it,’ Theo said.
‘So, what’s the problem?’
‘It’s just a few days late and this guy's pissed. I’ve been ducking his attack dog until I got the scratch together, but now that I have it I’m shit scared to go and give it to him.’
‘Who is he?’ Harry asked.
‘His name’s Andrei.’
Charlie looked at Harry like, you know this guy? Harry shrugged.
‘You want us to come with you?’
‘Actually, I was hoping you could give it to him for me.’
‘You want us to be the messengers, that’s fine. Might be a better idea if we just come with you instead.’
‘This guy is nuts! He said he’d cut off my fucking fingers!’ Theo pleaded.
‘What do you think he’ll do to us then if we go without you?’
‘Maybe he knows who you are.’
‘Maybe he doesn’t. If you send us in your place and this goes bad, you’re going to keep looking over your shoulder. If you come with us, maybe you won’t have to. Maybe we can reason with him.’
Theo went quiet. Charlie checked to see if the line was still connected.
‘Alright,’ Theo said. ‘I’ll come. I don’t want to lose my fingers man.’
‘Come by our place tonight,’ Charlie said before he hung up.
‘You guys want some back up?’ Jake said.
Charlie and Harry started laughing. Then Charlie and Harry really started laughing. Jake was going red as they all but rolled around on the floor.
‘Fuck you guys,’ Jake said.
‘I think I found something,’ Jake said as he threw the newspaper on the pool table.
Charlie and Harry both leaned in and scanned the headline.
Local orphanage shut down before opening.
‘You’re going to help build an orphanage?’
‘It’s just short a little cash. They’re asking for donations,’ Jake said.
‘It doesn’t say.’
‘I suggest you find out first before making any promises,’ Charlie said.
Jake took the paper back and headed out the door. This was his chance, his first and only chance to prove himself.
‘Told you,’ Charlie said, once Jake was gone. ‘Pay up.’
‘Could’ve sworn he’d go for that girl scout thing.’ Harry handed him a twenty. ‘Because we didn't shake on the fifty.’
Took Jake thirty minutes to make it to the orphanage. It was under construction, but there wasn’t a soul around. Three levels of grey concrete stood before him; square holes in the walls took place of windows and scaffolding over the west side of the structure. He walked to the front door and pushed it open.
‘Hello!’ his voice echoed down the empty hallway.
‘Hello?’ he heard faintly as a man made himself known. Jake approached him from a distance.
‘You in charge here?’
‘No, you want the administration office across the street,’ the scrawny man replied.
‘Alright, thanks,’ Jake said as he turned and made his way to the administration office.
When he got there he found a man wearing the holy collar with his elbows resting on a mountain of papers and a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
‘Father,’ Jake addressed him.
‘Friends call me Doug,’ the man said without taking his eyes off the paperwork.
‘Never heard of a priest named Doug before.’
The priest looked up, deadpan. ‘You want to break the ice, fuck a polar bear. Otherwise, tell me what you want.’
‘Jesus, sorry.’ Whoops. ‘Jesus! Sorry!’ Shit.
‘What do you want, son?’
‘Any luck?’ Jake asked as he motioned towards the donations box sitting by the door.
‘Not really. Seems some people prefer a third cup of coffee against helping people they don’t know,’ he replied as he rubbed his aged hand over his short white beard. ‘Is there something I can help you with?’
‘I was hoping I could help you actually.’
‘What, you want an internship or something? Work at the church?’
‘No offense,’ Jake couldn’t help but smile, ‘but I don’t really believe in God.’
‘He believes in you.’
‘Yeah, I’ve heard that one before.’
‘He does though. It’s the fuckin’ truth.’
‘Why, because I’m alive. Is that all it takes?’
‘So by that logic he believed in Hitler?’
‘…what do you want to help me with son?’
‘With the orphanage.’
‘No offense, but unless you have a very thick envelope in your pocket then we’re both shit outta luck.’
‘God couldn’t help you out with a few bucks?’
The Priest gave Jake a look like, keep pushing my buttons. See what happens.
‘Alright, sorry. How thick would that envelope have to be?’ Jake asked.
‘About 50 Grand thick, give or take.’
‘Give or take how much?’ Jake asked.
The Priest exhaled loudly as he less than enthusiastically fumbled through the stack of papers before him. He retrieved a single sheet and held it in front of him. The reading glasses hanging around his neck made their way over his eyes and he spoke clearly. ‘$49, 543.’
‘Big number,’ Jake said.
‘Do you have $49, 543 in your pocket Mr…’
‘Jake. And no I don’t.’
‘Well then, Mr. Jake, I’m afraid you can’t help. Unless you include the peace it’ll bring me when you get the fuck out.’
‘You got a foul mouth for a priest.’
‘And you got a deep voice for a girl.’
‘Sorry I wasted your time,’ Jake said. He slid ten dollars in the donation box as he turned and left.
‘God bless,’ the priest said.
How do I get fifty-thousand dollars, Jake asked himself as he walked through the streets. The foot traffic around him grew thicker as he got closer to the town center.
He glanced through the front windows of the shops as he passed them, offering a wave to any storeowners he made eye contact with. He stopped and turned as he realized out of the fifteen stores he had wandered past, he knew at least a dozen of the owners personally.
Most of the shops in the area were small businesses, local businesses, people who knew his name and more importantly, knew his surname.
He walked in to the nearest store and made his way for the laundry supplies. He picked up a blue bucket and walked up to the middle aged balding man at the register.
‘Hey Morty,’ Jake said.
‘Jake, how doin’ son? How’s your father?’
‘Good, and good. Just this please.’
‘Sure,’ Morty said as he scanned the barcode on the bottom of the bucket.
‘How’s business?’ Jake asked.
‘It’s good, the misses is in the back doing stock-take. Been a big week for us. That’ll be $4.95.’
‘Alright,’ Jake said as he reached for his wallet. ‘You got some tape behind the desk, and a marker?’
Morty exchanged the objects for the cash. Jake took a strip of masking tape and stuck it on the surface of the bucket and scribbled across it.
‘What’s the bucket for?’ Morty asked as he held out the change.
Jake turned it around the reveal what he’d written.
‘Donations?’ Morty asked. ‘What for?’
‘For the orphanage down the way. It’s not going to get finished unless we all chip in.’
Morty dropped Jake’s change in the bucket and smiled. ‘I do what I can.’
‘Smartass. Morty, listen to me. Yours is going to be the first donation, the first pile of money in this big blue plastic bucket of hope. However much you put in here is going to influence how much Rajeet puts in here. You want him to outdo you? Come on, Morty. You just told me business is good.’
Morty let out a sigh, he was caught in a guilt net. ‘How much you want?’
‘As much as a well-off businessman can spare for a few homeless kids with nothing but a pair of shoes to share.’
‘God damn it,’ Morty said as he opened the cash register. ‘At least I can check off charitable contribution when the taxman comes around.’ He counted a handful of cash and reluctantly placed it in the bucket; a gesture which was not entirely selfless, to be on the favorable side of the Winters family was never a bad thing.
‘You’re a saint,’ Jake said.
‘This better not be a scam or I’ll kick your ass,’ Morty said.
Jake walked outside and looked around at the other potential targets. He looked over his shoulder to offer Morty a wave but saw him making his way towards the back. His wife Dorine was taking his place behind the register.
A smile spread across Jake’s face. If there was one person he could guilt more than Morty, it was Dorine.
‘Dorine,’ Jake said as he made his way back inside, big smile plastered on his face.
‘Jakey!’ she enthusiastically replied. ‘How nice to see you again.’
‘You too,’ he said as he placed the bucket back up on the counter. ‘You care about kids right?’
Come nightfall and Jake had visited every one of the stores within a mile. The bucket had been filled twice and kept in a bag on Charlie and Harry’s couch. He was half way through sorting and counting when they came home.
‘What do we have here?’ Harry said, impressed by the piles of cash. ‘He might actually pull this off.’
‘How much is that?’ Charlie asked.
‘Once I’m done counting, I’ll let you know,’ came the proud reply.
Charlie and Harry smiled at each other, they both knew what Jake had yet to learn. Piles of cash were never as much as they looked, especially when they’re stuffed with singles.
‘How much do you need?’ Charlie asked, an irrelevant question, since he had called and asked already.
‘That’s a big number,’ Harry said.
‘This is a big pile,’ Jake replied.
‘Is it?’ Harry replied in that elevated IknowSomethingYouDon’tKnow tone. They waited and watched as Jake slowly did the math with a stone-aged calculator.
‘That can’t be right,’ Jake said.
‘What is it?’
‘There’s only like three grand here.’
‘Well, only forty-seven to go. Nice effort, though,’ Harry said.
Jake slouched back into the couch.
‘Did you go to a strip club?’ Charlie asked as he held up a handful of singles.
‘Considering more than one of them probably gave up some of those kids need a home, they gave what they could.’
Harry took three beers from the fridge and dropped into the couch beside Jake. He popped them open with the base of his lighter and handed one to both the Winters brothers.
‘Don’t sweat it, maybe this one was too big for your first time.’
‘Maybe. But then again, maybe not,’ Jake said. He placed the beer on the table, took the empty bucket and made his way for the door. Time for round two.
‘You think he’ll do it?’ Harry asked.
‘I think he’ll try,’ Charlie said as he placed his beer on the table next to Jake’s.
‘I’m having dinner with Jen, I’ll be back in a couple of hours, then we'll deal with Theo.’
The door closed and Harry was left alone.
‘Guess it’s just me and you, guys,’ Harry said to the three open beers.
A few hours later Jake found himself in Jack’s Diner with a miserably empty bucket. He had come to realize people give less at night.
‘Come on man, for the kids!’ Jake pleaded with the owner.
‘Sorry Jake, I can’t spare anything right now. I look after my own first.’
Jake dipped his head and shuffled off.
‘Jacob,’ a voice called.
Jake turned to see Sam and Solomon Taylor pounding burgers and fries across a booth. Their similar short blonde hair and facial features would lead a betting man to guess they were brothers, and although the pair shared a surname, it was purely coincidence that brought them together as children.
‘Hey guys,’ Jake said as he dropped into the booth beside Solomon.
‘You beggin’ for scraps now?’ Sam asked.
‘Begging is the right word, and failing.’
‘Thought you guys did alright for yourself.’
‘We do. Trying to help out an orphanage.’
‘That one from the paper? I read about that,’ Solomon said.
‘You don't read shit unless its on the back of a cereal box,’ Sam said.
‘Alright, I heard about it then. It got tied up in so much red tape that they pulled the plug.’
‘Word on the street say someone got paid off.’
‘Paid off, why?’
‘Why not? aAmost fully constructed building. If they can’t afford to finish it I’m sure it’ll go on the open market, for quite the discount.’
‘You guys find your way into any cash lately?’ Jake asked.
‘We’ve got a few things cooking, but nothing ready yet. We were going to head down the Green Door tonight, throw some dice. You want to come? Could triple that money,’ Solomon said.
Jake smirked. ‘Gamble the money I’m trying to raise? Doesn’t seem like a wise choice.’
Sam and Solomon shared a look.
‘Actually,’ Sam said. ‘You ever play Roulette?’
‘On occasion. Why?’
‘Well... we came by a system,’ Solomon helped sell the idea.
‘A system?’ Jake asked cautiously.
‘Hear us out. Ok, so in roulette you can bet thirds of the wheel, so the chances are one in three of tripling your money. Now you choose a third and place a bet, say fifty. Now if you hit it, you get one-fifty.’
‘Wow, do you math all the time? What if you miss it, then you lose the fifty,’ Jake said.
‘Yes, but if you lose then you bet the same third again, this time with a hundred. Fifty to cover the money you lost, and another fifty to still make a profit.’
‘And if you miss again?’
‘Then you bet again, two hundred. One-fifty to cover your loss, and that extra fifty for the profit. Remember the odds are one in three, so the chances that it will continuously miss that same third are slim.’
‘Yeah, in a perfect world.’
‘Even if you only hit one in six, you’ll still make that profit. Once you do, you only bet that original fifty, and the cycle starts again.’
‘It’s fool proof,’ Solomon added.
‘I wonder how many fools have said that.’
‘The only catch is that you need a lot of money to start with. How much do you have?’
‘And how much do you need?’
‘Just shy of fifty.’
‘Jesus. Well, I don’t see any other option. Four thousand won’t help, and unless you want to bet a horse, I’d say it’s irresponsible not to take this opportunity we have so selflessly presented to you.’
‘You’ve used this system before?’
‘Yes,’ they both lied.
‘And it works?’
Meanwhile Charlie was behind the wheel, navigating the streets with Harry by his side and Theo in the backseat.
‘I don’t know if this is a good idea,’ Theo said as he wiped the sweat from his forehead. His left hand clasped the ten-thousand-dollars in his pocket tightly.
‘Relax,’ Harry said. ‘Thugs are like dogs, if you show them fear, they’ll smell it. Just keep your cool.’
‘Easy for you to say.’
‘This is it,’ Charlie said as he pulled up.
They stepped out of the car and took in their surroundings. The moon was barely a sliver. The few working streetlights lit up the dirty graffiti and trash along the walls. The three of them made their way up the front stairs of the apartment building.
They found their way through the dim corridors until they arrived at their destination. Theo took a deep breath, knocked on the door with a quivering fist.
The door opened.
A thick muscular man in a worn cheap leather jacket stood before them. The attack dog.
‘I’ve been looking for you,’ the man said in a thick eastern European accent.
‘Here I am,’ was all Theo could say.
‘Andrei?’ Charlie asked. Theo shook his head.
The big man––Ivan––stepped back into the apartment. ‘Little boy is here,’ he said to the man on the couch.
Charlie and Harry entered the apartment before Theo. They saw the man sitting on the couch facing two laptop screens on the coffee table. He finished what he was typing before looking up at them.
‘Who are you?’ the man on the couch asked in an equally thick accent. They couldn’t quite place it, Bulgarian? Ukranian?
‘I’m Charlie, this is Harry. I believe you know our friend,’ he thumbed Theo.
‘You must be Andrei.’
‘Little Theo, where you been?’ Andrei said as he rose to his feet.
‘I’m sorry. I was getting your money,’ Theo said while staring at the floor beneath Andrei’s feet.
‘You have it?’
‘Yes.’ He retrieved the envelope from his pocket.
‘Come,’ he beckoned Theo forward.
Charlie studied the man's demeanor as his friend slowly skulked towards him. He could see the intimidation that frightened Theo so. Harry kept his eye on Ivan, who had taken a step back and watched with his arms crossed against his bulky chest.
Theo held his arm forward. Andrei reached for it, the yellow envelope was within grasp, but his hand continued forward and grabbed hold of Theo’s wrist.
‘You remember our deal, yes?’ Andrei asked. Theo shot a panicked look at Charlie. ‘If you are late, I take finger.’
Theo dropped the envelope and tried to yank his arm back but he may as well be caught in a bear trap. Charlie and Harry stepped forward.
‘Don’t move,’ Ivan said as he pulled a gun from his waistband.
‘Andrei, wait,’ Charlie said calmly. ‘Let’s make a deal.’
‘I already make deal with Theo,’ Andrei replied. ‘He promise to bring me my money four days ago, I tell him if he no do this then I take finger. I am business man, this lying is no good for my business and no good for my reputation.’ Andrei flicked open a hunting knife.
‘We understand that,’ Harry chimed in. ‘But are we right in assuming that no one outside of this room knows that our friend Theo here was late in returning your generous loan?’
‘Yes,’ Andrei entertained.
‘So unless your girl here has a mouth as big as her tits then no one is going to know, and your reputation will remain intact.’
That pissed Ivan off, because he didn’t have tits, it was nothing but muscle.
‘And what is in this deal for me?’ Andrei asked as his grip loosened slightly.
‘Profit.’ Harry said.
‘Twenty percent of the initial.’
‘Fifty percent is better.’
‘That’s a bit much,’ Harry said.
Ivan stepped forward and pressed the gun firmly against Harry’s cheek. ‘Fifty percent is deal, or we take your tits too.’
Charlie made no attempt to hide his smirk.
‘Tell me Jerkules,’ Harry sneered; ‘what was the point of building all this muscle if your going to threaten me with a gun instead?’
Ivan’s eyes filled with anger as he clicked back the hammer. ‘You think I need gun to kill you?’
‘Looks like it.’
Andrei’s amusement in the situation had caused him to release Theo, who slowly made his way to the side of the room.
‘Want to make a new deal?’ Charlie offered. ‘Harry beats your man, it’s twenty percent.’
‘And if Ivan win is fifty?’
‘Hell, call it sixty,’ Harry said.
Harry eyeballed the man he was about to fight.
Ivan had a thick silver chain around his neck, several large rings that could do some damage, under the leather jacket was a tight black shirt that hugged his muscles tightly.
‘What you think Ivan?’ Andrei asked.
‘I crush them both,’ Ivan snarled.
‘I've got a sore neck,’ Charlie said. ‘I'll sit it out.’
‘Okay. Deal,’ Andrei said.
Theo’s eyes were stuck open as Harry prepared to face a man with a considerable age, size and weight advantage, on account of his own actions.
‘Anything I should know princess? Heart condition? Bad knee?’ Harry said as he rolled up his sleeves.
‘No rules,’ Andrei said.
Ivan handed his gun to Andrei and removed his leather jacket. ‘I going to kill you,’ he growled.
‘You call it,’ Charlie said to Andrei.
Jake, with the help of Sam and Solomon, had won over eight thousand dollars from the roulette tables over the course of the night. That figure brought a total of twelve thousand dollars in chips stacked before him.
The system had worked and continued to work; the only flaw was that of human endurance. The hoarding had taken six hours of sitting and betting responsibly, under the instruction of Sam and Solo.
The cash had been distributed among them in the beginning, and they mixed in several non-consequence hands of black jack and poker to avoid suspicion from the terrifyingly brutal men who ran the joint.
Jake cashed in the chips and said farewell to the Taylor’s for the night, with the promise to meet at another casino the next day to continue the growth in ‘donations.’
‘Thanks, Badger,’ Jake said tiredly as the guy behind the cage slid Jake his winnings.
‘Anytime yo. You cleaned up today’ Badger replied.
‘Had a good run. Cya.’
Jake trudged up the flight of stairs slowly, came out into the alleyway. The dark bags under his eyes were visible to anyone that glanced upon his face. He checked his watch, was quarter to four.
The bouncer gave him a nod as he walked off.
‘Night, man,’ Jake replied as he walked away.
Tired as he was, a smile crept across his face. For years he’d wanted to be a part of what Charlie and Harry were doing. They were protectors, as he saw it. People in the neighborhood knew who they were. When they needed help, it was their names that people spoke of.
He was close to being one of those names.
Hey, give Jake a call. He’ll help you out, he imagined people saying.
A voice snapped him from his trance.
Autopilot had brought him most of the way home. He turned to see someone approaching him from behind; hoodie pulled over his head, pants half way down his ass, swagger and bad posture of a gutter walker.
‘You got the time?’ he asked.
Fuck, Jake thought, this guy doesn’t want to know the time.
‘Late’ Jake replied.
‘You got a smoke?’ he asked.
‘Sorry,’ Jake said as he continued to back away.
The man’s pace forward was quicker than Jakes going backward, he was gaining on him.
‘Spare some change?’
Like the twelve grand in my back pocket?
‘Sorry,’ Jake said.
Jake stopped moving backward, ran smack against a man blocking his path.
Jake knew if he turned around he’d have no shot, so instead he lunged forward and caught the guy in front of him in the jaw.
Ivan rampaged at Harry and launched a powerful fist straight for his center mass.
One of the first things Harry learned to do when fighting, whether they’ve got a knife, a gun, or cinder blocks for fists like this guy, was to step aside.
Harry stepped left and deflected right. Let Ivan’s momentum carry him past.
Harry grabbed the back of Ivan’s thick silver chain and yanked on it; it snapped, but not before partially crushing his Larynx and windpipe. Ivan grabbed at his throat and gasped.
Harry stepped around the mountain of a man and delivered a solid punch on the bridge of his nose, blood exploded downwards and gushed over his mouth and chin.
He grabbed Ivan by his shirt and tripped him down to the ground. The apartment shook as the large man fell. A quick kick to the solar plexus and Harry stepped back with a satisfied pant.
Andrei looked on, disatisified, holding Ivan’s gun in hand.
‘Impressive,’ Andrei said. ‘How old you are?’
‘Old enough,’ Harry replied as he rolled his sleeves back down.
Andrei pulled the hammer back on the gun and asked the question again.
‘Twenty-two,’ Harry said.
‘You learned to fight like this at twenty-two?’
Harry smirked. ‘I learned to fight like this at ten.’
Quivering Theo slowly rose to his feet and slunk his way over behind Charlie and Harry.
‘Twenty percent?’ Charlie asked, squarin’ Andrei right in the eyes.
Andrei nodded confirmation. ‘And a finger.’
‘We had a deal.’
‘I have gun, so I make new deal. Twenty percent and finger.’ He looked at Theo as he spoke. ‘Go find someone who needs it less than you,’ his hauntingly thick Russian accent sent a chill down Theo’s spine.
Jake had landed the first punch, but it didn’t count for much.
He was curled up in a ball taking a volley of kicks the gut, the back, lower spine. It was the stomp to the head that took him out. Thrust him into a state of not-quite-consciousness. Everything got blurry, started spinning.
The two men stopped their assault and went through his pockets. They tried to pry Jakes hands off the envelope full of cash, but he held on tightly.
‘Give it to me!’ one of them yelled as they rose to their feet and raised a boot. Jake screamed as the heavy stomp broke his grip on the money, along with several bones in his left hand.
The envelope was gone.
Jake rolled onto his back and choked on the pain as hurried footsteps faded.
Charlie, Harry and Theo were sitting in their living room with a beer in their hands. The muted television filled the dark room with light; they both stared dead ahead and exchanged ideas.
‘What about Jarred? You know, that dealer down by the docks,’ Charlie said.
‘I mean I hate him, but not that much. Could check the sex offenders list on, got to be someone in the area.’ Harry replied.
Charlie shrugged, not a bad idea. The phone buzzed on the coffee table.
Charlie scooped it up and put it to his ear.
Charlie and Harry rushed to the hospital.
‘Are you alright?’
‘Who did this?’
‘Where did this happen?’
‘Who did this?!’
‘Easy guys,’ Mike intervened. Mike was Jake’s doctor, had been before and would be again. He was pretty much all their doctors for when they got the crap beaten out of them. They got to know him pretty well. ‘He's got a broken hand, a couple of bruised ribs. No concussion, no internal bleeding, he's going to be fine.’
‘Well, aside from the obvious,’ Jake held up the cast around his left hand.
‘Guess you're going to have to date your right instead,’ Harry said.
‘What happened Jake?’ Charlie asked.
‘Went to the Green Door with Sam and Solo. Won a lot of money playing roulette.’
‘You were gambling the donations money?’
‘Yeah, well no. They have this system. You bet on thirds of thee––‘
‘Fuck, Jake. I don’t care. What happened then?’
‘Got jumped on the way home. In that alley behind Cleveland's. I don't know who, barely saw a face.’
‘Did they take your wallet? Your phone?’ Harry asked. Jake shook his head. ‘Then they knew you had that money with you. Could have followed you from the Green Door. Could have been inside.’
‘Alright, start there and find out what you can,’ Charlie said to Harry. ‘I'll go see Ducky, he usually knows something.’ They both made their way for the door and at the last minute remembered why they were there and turned around.
‘You going to be alright? You need anything?’
Jake looked at Michael as if to ask if it was alright to leave the hospital.
‘You can go, just take it easy.’ Michael said as he handed Jake a small bottle of pills. ‘Painkillers. Enough for a week.’
‘Thanks,’ Jake said as he painfully stepped off the bed.
Sam and Solo knocked on Jake’s door.
‘Holy shit,’ Sam said when it swung open.
‘They didn’t say it was this bad,’ Solomon added.
‘Harry told us what happened.’
‘Come on in,’ Jake stepped aside.
‘Only when I breathe,’ Jake said as they settled into the living room.
‘They took everything huh?’ Solomon asked.
‘All of it.’
‘Damn. After all that work.’
Jake ran his hands through his hair and exhaled loudly. He was back at square one.
‘So what now?’ Sam asked.
‘Now we think of a new way to get fifty grand. I don't care if we have to lie, cheat or steal. There has to be a way,’ Jake said through a yawn.
‘Could rob a bank?’
‘Could rush a jewelry store?’
‘Could invent something?’
‘Could blackmail?’ Solomon said.
‘Who do you know that we could blackmail for that much?’ Jake asked.
They searched the recesses of their minds for an answer, but thought of no one with the amount of money they would need without an equally large penchant for violence.
‘Let’s let it simmer,’ Solo said as he pulled a joint. A perfect baseball bat rolled with thirty percent chop, and seventy percent the best Sativa shit they ever smoked. They sparked up and settled into a quintillionth viewing of The Three Musketeers.
One for all, and all for one.
One for all, and all for one.
One for all, and all for one.
And it clicked in Jake’s mind.
‘What if… hear me out. Alright. Okay. So. Shit, I lost.’
Sam and Solo burst out laughing.
‘No, wait, alright. It's risky shakin’ down one person for that much. But what if we shake down a lot of people.’
‘What, like a group of people?’
‘No. Nothing to do with each other. No connection. How hard could it be? I know at least three people who are cheating on their wives,’ Jake said.
‘I know a guy who likes to dress up in women's clothing. He’s a lawyer too, he wouldn’t want that shit to get out,’ Solomon said.
‘Do you know anyone?’ Jake asked Sam.
‘Maybe one or two,’ Sam answered, uneasily.
‘They won't know it was you.’
‘Yeah, but I would.’
‘Do it for the kids,’ Jake said.
Over the course of the next few days, Jake, Sam and Solomon compiled a list of marks.
They armed themselves with a camera each, which Solomon borrowed while Jake and Sam kept the store owner busy.
They followed their marks around for days. They followed cheaters, adulterers, drug users, scum of the earth type dressed in a suit and acting civilized. Behind closed doors, when they thought they were safe, that’s when they showed their true colours. Only got worse once the sun went down.
One guy they caught jerkin’ it to underage kids. Not talking under eighteen here, talking under twelve. They didn’t even blackmail him, just called the cops.
‘How long does this guy use the toilet for?’ Jake yawned.
He was with Solomon on the rooftop of one of the taller skyscrapers in the heart of Ariel city.
Dark night sky was cool, not cold, and the wind was gentle enough on the eyes, but hard enough to tussle the hair.
They had a camera set up with a 40X zoom lens, another item he acquired with the five finger discount, trained on one of the hotel rooms across the street.
Solomon guarded his cigarette against the wind and struck it. He offered Jake the open packet.
‘They'll kill you,’ Jake said.
‘Everything’ll kill you Jake. Turn on the news these days and they'll tell you. The food we eat will give you cancer, the water we drink will poison you, watch out for the GMO’s, you’ll grow a fourth leg. Fuckin’ apples have as much sugar as chocolate. Fuck it, this little cancer stick makes me feel good. Much better than an apple ever did. And at least it’s not lying.’ Solomon took a long drag and inhaled the smoke deep into his lungs, let it out over the city.
‘This is taking forever,’ Jake said.
‘Take it easy,’ Solomon sat himself up on the building's ledge and let his feet dangle.
‘Waiting is part of the job.’
‘You've done this kind of thing before?’
‘Once or twice.’
‘He's out,’ Jake said as he watched the man––a district judge–– step out of the bathroom and make his way to the door. Jake watched, narrated to Solomon as he did.
The judge opened the door for a woman, blonde, mid-thirties. They made their way to the bedroom. He produced a handful of cash and showed it to her before placing it on the bedside table.
‘Gotcha, you son of a bitch. Think twice before giving me community service,’ Solomon said.
Still dark out.
The three of them came together at Sam and Solo’s place.
They drank whiskey and laughed at pictures of men in women's underwear, or winced at the shots of the depraved sex acts of some of South-Ariel's up and coming politicians.
‘I did not know he was gay,’ Sam said as he filled an envelope with photo's and a strongly worded letter.
‘I'm sure his wife doesn't either,’ Jake said.
The three of them wore white latex gloves and tight caps, to prevent any stray hairs from falling into the incriminating envelopes. When they were done they had a stack of ten large yellow envelopes, each stamped, addressed and ready to go. Each letter had a time, place and an amount – which varied depending on the target's assumed net worth.
Charlie and Harry were sitting in the car.
The hour was late and the streets were deserted. The moon wasn’t showing up again tonight. A quietness surrounded them. A black duffle bag sat between them. The black duffle bag. When that bag opened, pain soon followed.
They’d asked around about any similar robbings post-gambling at the Green Door. Turns out there had. Didn’t take much asking around, especially for them, to find out who it was. Was even easier to get an address.
Harry unzipped the duffle bag and reached inside. He pulled out a faded and scratched up black and blue hockey mask and handed it to Charlie. Pulled out his own next, just as damaged, wasn’t much left of the red and yellow skull.
They looked around before stepping out of the car with baseball bats in hand.
They pressed the doors closed and silently made their way up the unkempt front lawn of an old neglected colonial house.
The paint on the walls was peeling and the cracks in the windows seemed to have spread over years.
‘This place is a shit-hole,’ Harry said softly.
‘Ducky said he was a tweaker,’ Charlie said as he motioned for Harry to go around the opposite side of the house.
They split up and made their way around the structure, peering in the windows as they did. They met up in the backyard and carefully stepped onto the old wooden planks of the patio. Charlie tested the door handle.
‘You've got to be kidding me,’ Harry shook his head when the door opened freely. Silent as shadows, they pulled the hockey masks over their faces and made their way into the house.
The inside was worse.
Tattered clothing lay strewn across the floor, old stained mattresses, needles among an indescribable amount of garbage. They followed the rhythmic snoring that flowed through the hallway until they came to a bedroom.
A bare mattress with a single half naked man lay in the middle of the room.
They stood on either side.
Harry poked the man with his bat. He didn’t budge. Charlie raised his own and gave the man a solid tap on the back of the head. That woke him up.
His crusty eyes stared at the two menacing figures looming over him from above. In a moment of realization, the man scattered to his feet and attempted to flee. Charlie stood in his way and threw him against the wall. Harry swung his bat and struck him in the thigh, the man screamed. Charlie put his brown leather gloved hand over his mouth.
‘You know who we are?’ Charlie asked through his hockey mask. ‘Judgement day.’
The junkie writhed and squealed. The fear of it multiplied by the fact he was still trippin’ balls. These were the fucking angels of death come for him. He was a young enough guy, but came close to having a heart attack.
Harry snapped right when he heard movement in the house. He jumped towards the open doorway as another half naked man entered wielding a kitchen knife. With one hand Harry thrust his bat into the man's sternum, causing him to keel forward and grasp at his torso, with a spin of the wrist Harry spun the bat full circle and smacked him in the back of the head. He crashed towards the ground.
Charlie returned his attention to the man in his grasp. ‘Are you Chilly?’
The man shook his head. ‘He is,’ his quivering finger pointed to the man at Harry's feet.
‘So, that makes you Roach,’ Charlie said. ‘The other day you and your friend here took something that wasn't yours, and you hurt someone very close to me.’
‘I'm sorry,’ he pleaded.
‘So am I. Where’s the money?’
Roach's jaw clattered as he replied. ‘What money, we don’t have any money.’
Charlie grabbed Roach by the face and pressed his thumb into the pressure point in his cheekbone, just below the eye, until he screamed.
Charlie threw him to ground and watched as the man scrambled for the mattress. Harry kept his foot firmly on top of the struggling man.
Roach took a handful of cash from under the mattress and handed it to Charlie.
‘Under the mattress... Really?’ Harry asked.
‘That's all that's left,’ Roach pleaded. ‘Please. You have to believe me!’
‘Alright. Just one more thing,’ Charlie said as he produced a pair of handheld gardening sheers.
‘Which one of you broke my brother's hand?’
‘That's the last one,’ Sam said as he hung up the recently purchased burner phone.
‘We've got three pick-ups each tonight. Last one we’ll do together. Remember, be subtle, be unassuming. You sure you're up for this, Jake?’
‘Yeah, the pain's almost gone. I got my switch, just in case.’
‘You want a gun? Just in case...’ Solomon asked.
‘No,’ Jake said.
The three of them walked out with a list of locations in their pocket; trashcans, park benches, the underside of cars, all the places they had told their victims to leave the money.
The night progressed without incident.
They collected their three packages each, with ample precaution before and afterwards. The last appointment for the night was scheduled for two hours past midnight. The drop was in an underground parking garage near the shopping centre.
The figure was fourteen-thousand-dollars, largest sum of the night.
The large garage was scattered with small clusters of cars through out. Dim lighting created pockets of darkness. The three of them moved silently, listened carefully. Solomon gripped a Snub-Nosed Revolver in his jacket pocket.
‘Green-4. Spot 53,’ Sam repeated to himself under his breath as they made their way towards the drop point. The three of them shared the feeling of regret for choosing that particular location; the fingertips of fear reached for each of them.
‘This doesn't feel right,’ Jake whispered.
‘We're already here, let's just get it over with,’ Sam replied.
Jake jerked his head over his shoulder, did he hear something? He wasn't sure.
‘Will you relax, you're making me nervous,’ Solomon said.
They approached space 53. The old dark green station wagon which had occupied the same spot for almost a year now. They stood around the trunk, still hyper alert to their surroundings.
‘Get it,’ Sam said to Solomon.
‘Get it,’ Solomon said to Jake.
Jake rubbed his ribs in pain, played it up, I’m still hurtin’ boys. Solomon let out a sigh then dropped to his knees and looked under the car. A sound reached Jake's ears. His eyes shot left to the sea of random cars.
‘Did you hear that?’ Jake whispered.
‘Yes,’ Sam said. ‘Hurry up Solo.’
Jake heard it again, a click. Distant yet close.
‘Got it,’ Solomon said as he rose to his feet with a canvas bag in his hand.
The three of them paced back the way they had come, checking over their shoulders every few meters. Once they reached the open, they ran across the street and disappeared through the park.
‘It's all in there?’ Jake asked once he felt they were at a safe distance.
‘Looks like it,’ Solomon said as he searched the small bag.
‘So, we got it all?’
‘We got it all,’ Sam smiled. ‘Looks like you're in.’
Jake couldn't help but smile as well. A chuckle escaped him. The chuckle turned to a laugh. The laugh made his ribs hurt.
The next morning Charlie and Harry found Jake sleeping on the couch. A jab in the shoulder woke him with a start.
‘How you feeling princess?’ Harry asked.
A smile spread across Jake's face as he sat up. ‘Excellent,’ he replied as he emptied the contents of his pillow case onto the coffee table. ‘Fifty-grand,’ he announced proudly.
‘Wow,’ they both stared at the money.
‘I'm impressed,’ Charlie said.
‘The hell did you get that from?’
‘Doesn’t matter. I'm in?’ Jake asked. The glance Charlie and Harry shared didn't look promising.
‘We've talked about it. A lot,’ Charlie began, ‘And we agree that it's too dangerous. You're not ready. I mean look at what's happened already. You could have been killed, got brain damage.
‘You got fuckin’ head stomped, man,’ Harry added.
‘We love you. But I don't think it's a smart move.’
‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ Jake shot off the couch.
‘Sorry,’ Harry said, ‘we're doing this because we care about you. It's dangerous what we do. You got a broken hand this time, we weren't there to protect you. What if it's serious next time?’
‘I can take it,’ Jake said.
‘Sorry Jake. Maybe next year. Good news though, we found the guys that jumped you, we got the cash back. Or at least most of it. But we do need to take two-grand out, for Theo.’ Charlie said.
Jake stormed into the bedroom. ‘Don’t give a shit. Keep it all.’
Harry already had the two-grand in his pocket. He took something from the fridge, a small object wrapped in red-stained cloth inside a zip-lock plastic bag.
‘I'll grab Theo and take care of this. You stay and try and cheer him up,’ Harry said before he left.
Charlie walked into Jake’s room.
‘You should be proud of what you've done, I know I am,’ Charlie said. ‘Let's go and drop this money off then grab a drink.’
It didn't take much convincing to get Jake to start drinking. His pouty silence was something his brother had gotten used to whenever he was upset. They dropped off the money anonymously and watched Father Doug's reaction from a distance. A fraction of a grin spread across Jake's face for a moment. Then the thought, I don’t need them to do good.
A few hours later Harry and Theo joined them in Dempseys. Harry could guess the copious amounts of alcohol Jake must have already ingested from his slurred speech and delayed reactions.
‘How'd it go?’ Charlie asked.
‘Interesting,’ Harry replied. ‘I think he offered me a job. Don't think he was too happy with Ivan after I tuned him up.’
‘Yeah I don't blame him,’ Theo said, like a happy little lap dog.
‘You taking it?’ Charlie said.
‘We’ll see. He need another drink?’ Harry motioned to Jake.
‘Don’t think he’ll fight you on it,’ Charlie said.
‘Ooh, she's new,’ Harry said as the young brunette bartender made her way over.
‘What can I do for you guys?’ she smiled.
‘You can start with a name,’ Harry smiled back.
‘Well Becky, I'm Harold, this is Charles, and this inebriated fellow here is Jacob, we are pleased to meet you. Will be seeing a lot of you. If you don't mind, we will take three beers and three shots of bourbon please.’
‘Such a gentlemen,’ she smiled.
Jake's drunken eyes slowly focused on the woman standing before him. ‘Wow, you're pretty,’ he slurred.
‘And there goes the magic,’ Harry laughed.
‘I'll go get your drinks,’ she said as she walked away.
Jake watched her go, then turned his head back to Charlie and Harry. ‘Oh’ hiccup ‘god. She's so pretty.’
‘So ask her out,’ Harry said. ‘Maybe you'll finally pop your cherry.’
‘Shut up,’ Jake said.
‘Hey guys,’ Theo said. ‘I want to say thank you. Like, really. I don't know what I would have done, I'd be short a finger for sure.’
‘It’s cool, man,’ Charlie said.
‘So… How much do I owe you?’
‘Whatever you can afford, and whenever you can afford it.’
‘You can start with getting the next round of drinks,’ Harry added.
‘I thought you guys drank free here?’
‘We do. But you don’t.’
The next morning Jake woke up on the floor beside the couch. His head throbbed, a combination of the alcohol and painkillers, his ribs and his left hand ached.
He was covered in a dozen polaroids. Didn’t know what the hell they were at first. He started going through them. They were pictures of him well fucked up. So drunk he didn’t recognize anything in the photos.
One of him trying to take two shots at once.
One of him humping a statue.
One of him passed out with Charlie and Harry laughing and messing with him.
Then there was one of them carrying him into a tattoo studio.
Then him laying passed out on the table.
Then the tattoo artist––same guy who gave Charlie and Harry their tatts–– smiling for the camera.
Jake lifted his shirt and looked. Yup, that was a pain he didn’t have the day before. That burning sting of fresh ink under the white bandage with ‘You’ve earned it’ scribbled across it.
He picked at the corner and slowly ripped it away, revealing the shiny ink of a new tattoo; the Roman numeral III.
A smile spread across his face.
Didn’t last long as rushed for the toilet and emptied his guts.
He climbed to his feet and stood before the mirror. He stared at the new tattoo. He rinsed his mouth and walked out into the living room.
A yellow envelope by the door caught his attention. He opened the door and looked down the empty hallway. He bent down and scooped it up.
Inside he found a handful of freshly printed photographs.
Photo's of him, Sam and Solomon all huddled around the back of a car. He recognized the place, the underground parking garage, the last drop.
The pictures came with a note.
Now I have photo's of you too.