The Car, the Dog, and the Girl

To those special readers who have access to this secret page . . . I hope you enjoy this short story. You can read here on the website, or you can download a .pdf file by clicking HERE.

  I REMEMBER THINKING, if I ever get out of this trunk, I’m going to murder my cousin Eddie. It was probably a waste of my mental energy to be thinking about that, but I couldn’t help it. Revenge can be great motivation. I knew it wasn’t entirely Eddie’s fault, but it kinda was. At least enough to deserve a short beating. So, maybe not full-on murder. After all, Eddie is my favorite cousin.

        The beauty of a 1997 Lincoln is that the trunk can hold four large suitcases or, in this case, one full-sized man, with plenty of room to spare. If you’re transporting live humans, it’s also perfect because it was manufactured before trunks were required to have interior hatch release levers. So, all I could do was wait for the car to stop and for the guy who put me in here to open the lid.

        I also clearly remember thinking that the story of how I got there was going to be really funny, if I ever got to tell it.

Part 1 – The Car

        It started three days ago, when I ran into Eddie at The Triple Lindy, which is a dive bar in my neighborhood in Newark. The owner, Phil, is a big Rodney Dangerfield fan and loved the pun. I was having a lousy month, which included getting pulled over by local law enforcement for running what I swear was a yellow light. The color became secondary when the officer discovered the three unpaid tickets on my record and the expired registration sticker on my windshield. My explanation about how I was out of work and didn’t have the money did not persuade her. My attempt to sweet-talk her into leniency earned me a set of steel bracelets and a night in the city lock-up.

        When I went to pick up my unemployment check the next week, I was informed that the government had done something I had never heard of called a garnishment and seized my hard-earned handout to pay my fines. This left me without sufficient funds to pay off Willie Bones. We call him Bones because he runs the craps game in the back room of The Triple Lindy. Some guys also say he earned the nickname because he broke the legs of several patrons who failed to pay their tab.

        So, you can imagine that I wasn’t really keen to be walking into the joint on Thursday. I had worked up a pretty good story to tell Willie Bones, most of which had the advantage of being actually true. That’s when Eddie spotted me and whistled.

        “Hey, dickwad!” he yelled, pointing and motioning me over to his booth.

        “How you doin’, moron?” I was jealous of Eddie. He was taller than me, better looking than me, and had more hair than me. He also had more money and an actual job.

        “I’m pretty good, Lenny. You got a minute for a beer?”

        He knew I did, since I always do. “Sure, Eddie. You an’ me can have a beer.”

        “You and I,” he shot back with a stupid grin on his fat face. He pisses me off every time he tells me I should say I instead of me. I usually tell him he can suck my dick. That’s the kind of cousins we are. Anyway, I sat down and Eddie said, “You got any plans for the weekend?”

        “No. Why?”

        “You want to make a quick two grand?”

        Now, I’m immediately skeptical about why Eddie would make me such an offer and I assume it’s illegal, dangerous, and probably not really going to pay two grand. But he says he heard about my stay at the local cinder block hotel and figured I could use a break. He also said the guy he had lined up for the gig had called him from Atlantic City to say he got lucky at the poker table and would not be able to handle the assignment. Normally, I would tell Eddie to kiss my posterior, since Eddie’s not the only one who can speak eloquently. But, since Willie Bones was in the back room waiting for me, I let Eddie buy me a beer and I listened.

        The job seemed pretty simple. Eddie does some business with some guys who are connected. He never fails to tell me this because he knows that, in my considered opinion, I would be an excellent and reliable asset for the guys in question because I do what I’m told, I don’t ask questions, and I’m not afraid of engaging in activity that isn’t entirely legal. For years he has managed to find me a few scraps. Mostly they were jobs working security. They paid peanuts, but I figured if I performed well, I could get my foot in the door. I didn’t screw anything up, so I was permitted to come back when they needed an extra body. I know my way around a bar fight and I can handle a pistol. So, Eddie’s offer seemed legit, although I was still skeptical about the two grand.

        According to Eddie, a guy he knows had a vintage car and needed somebody to get up to Boston and drive the car down to New York and it had to happen by Saturday. I had Eddie explain to Willie Bones that I would have two grand in my pocket by Sunday, which was sufficient to get Willie to cut me some slack on my debt.

        Eddie had a sheet of paper printed out with all the details about the job. I was on my own to get my ass up to Boston, so naturally I had to borrow money from Eddie for the train fare. He charged me 50% interest. Asshole. I packed my gym bag with a change of underwear, a clean shirt, and a six-pack of Gatorade and I was ready to roll.

        It was hot as the Devil’s sauna on the street in Boston, but I opted to walk the ten blocks from the train station to the pickup site. My five-year-old android burner that I kept from a previous job had GPS, which was helpful since the streets in Boston were designed by a drunken one-legged half-wit. I don’t use the phone much because the charger port is mostly busted. If I tape it together and leave it overnight it will hold a fifty percent charge, but that’s about it. Not that I make many calls. When I got to the parking garage, I called the number on Eddie’s sheet, told the guy who answered I was standing outside the place, then powered down the phone.

        Fifteen sweaty minutes later, up the ramp comes the car. I’ve seen some nice rides, but this beauty put anything else I had ever seen to shame. It was red, like the first cherry out of the jar. The chrome wheel covers sparkled in the sun. It was a convertible, but the kind with a hard top that folds up in four sections that disappear down behind the rear seat. The top was up, but I could see the segment lines. The hood ornament had a horse on it, but I didn’t recognize it.

        When the door opened, a fat slob wearing a Red Sox t-shirt struggled out from behind the wheel and stared at me like I had just taken a dump in his living room. He had long, stringy black hair and a three-day beard. I’m what I like to call wiry, which other people call skinny. I’m stronger than I look, though, and I’m quick. I had put on a polo shirt with a collar for the gig, along with my cleanest jeans. A waitress at the Lindy clipped my hair short for me, so I’d look respectable. I stared back at the guy, waiting for him to talk first. He waited for me, so we just stood and stared like two mules waiting at an empty feed trough. I watched the sweat start to run down the jerk’s neck. I finally decided that I wanted to get going more than I wanted to win the stare-down. But I wasn’t ready to totally concede defeat.

        “It’s too bad your team sucks so bad. You’ll be watching the playoffs from your couch.”

        Fat Wade Boggs opened his mouth, like he was going to say something, then turned away and looked back into the car. When he turned back, he sneered like I wasn’t good enough to drive this magnificent vehicle. As if he was the Queen’s butler in his dirty cargo shorts and flip-flops. “You the driver, ass-face?”

        “Yeah. I’m the driver. Is this the car?”

        I didn’t bother asking his name, nor did I want to get into a fight. He dug an envelope out of his pocket and held it out toward me. “The key’s in the ignition. There’s gas money in here, along with the address you’re takin’ it to. You got a GPS?”

        “Yeah,” I said, patting my front pocket.

        “You know how to drive a stick?”

        “You know how to tie your shoes?” I spread my legs apart, weight on my left, ready to move if the guy tried to swing at me.

        The guy just grunted. “Good luck.”

        “Fine,” I said, snatching the envelope from his pudgy fingers. He stepped aside just barely enough for me to squeeze past him. I melted into the leather driver’s seat and closed the door. I adjusted the side mirrors, then reached for the rearview.

        That’s when I saw the dog.

Part 2 – The Dog

        It was laying across the middle of the back seat, a pure white ball of fluff. I made eye contact in the mirror and the little thing raised its head up, opened its mouth, stuck out a pink tongue, and barked one sharp yip. It then jumped up and bounded into the front passenger seat. It put two little black paws on the center console and licked the back of my right hand, which was resting on the stick shift.

        I pulled back my hand and fumbled for the switch to lower the window. I called out to fat Wade Boggs. “Hey! What’s with the dog? Nobody told me anything about taking care of a dog.”

        The guy shrugged. “Fifi comes with the car. Make sure you deliver her and the car.”

        I stared at him, then glanced back at the little white puffball. “Fifi?” The dog perked up when I said her name, then barked again and panted, her tongue hanging out. I’m not a dog guy, but if I were, I’d want a big, athletic dog, like a Golden Retriever or a German Shephard. This little thing couldn’t bite its way out of a paper bag. It had a round head, black eyes, and perky ears. Its bushy white tail flapped back and forth like a windshield wiper on high speed. I put up the window and resigned myself to the idea that my solitary trip now had a passenger.

        I gunned the engine before putting it in first and easing away. After driving around the block three times waiting for my phone’s GPS to kick in, I spent the next forty-five minutes maneuvering through the stupidest streets on the planet before finding the Mass Pike and getting on my way south. Well, west to start.

        Keeping the little red convertible under the speed limit was one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life. I mean, keeping my dick in my pants when my boss told me to drive his daughter, Betty, home after a wedding and she told me she wasn’t wearing any panties was nothing. She was sixteen and hot as the muzzle of a pistol. Self-control has never been my strong suit, but I kept it together that night. Driving that red convertible down the mostly-empty three-line highway, with its motor humming and just begging to hit triple digits; that was torture.

        But getting pulled over by a state trooper was not an option. I hoped that the car’s registration and insurance cards were there somewhere, but I did not want to get tossed in a Massachusetts jail because of my still not fully-paid tickets.

        I pulled over at a rest stop as soon as I hit I-95 and took Fifi over to the grassy “pet maintenance” area to pee before I went inside to relieve myself and get a bite to eat. She followed me back to the car, but when I closed the door, she started scratching at the closed window and whining. I ignored her and turned away, at which point she started barking loudly. A few other rest stoppers looked at me like I was a serial killer. I didn’t want to have somebody call a trooper and report me as a dog abuser. My problem was that I had no leash for the little thing. I had let her pee on the grass right next to where I parked the car, then she hopped right back in afterwards. How was I supposed to bring her into the rest area? I searched the back seat but there was nothing. It crossed my mind for about five seconds to check in the trunk, but I had driven enough cars owned by guys who valued their privacy to know better. The trunk was definitely off limits.

        It turns out that you can pick up a little lap dog and carry it around. I got some side-eye when I went into the stall with the dog under my arm, but she was happy to be lugged around. Washing my hands was an adventure until I put her down on the shelf above the sink like a can of beer. She was totally happy to wag her tail and smile at the other bathroom users. Little bitch. She was not happy that I didn’t share my burger with her, but the last thing I needed was Fifi pooping all over the car. She whined and scratched me, then started licking my fingers. I figured it was the salt from my fries, and I didn’t think a little salt would hurt her, so I let her keep doing it. That kept her happy until I had finished eating.

        I picked up a bag of fried pork rinds for the road while the cashier made goo-goo faces at my puffy companion. I put Fifi in the back seat, but she leapt into the front passenger seat and continued to lick my fingers every time I put my hand on the stick. I told her, “No!” but she just smiled at me and stuck out that little pink tongue. So, I let her lick my hand. When I started eating the pork rinds, she went nuts and tried to jump over my lap to get to the bag. I placated her by keeping my hand on the stick so she could lick me as much as she wanted.

        Three very slow hours later, I rolled across the Triboro bridge, which I will never, ever, call the JFK Bridge, and made my way toward the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It was after eleven o’clock, but I was feeling great after sleeping most of the morning on the train. My destination was a Holiday Inn Express on 39th Avenue. I had turned off my phone once I was on the highway, but had to pull over and turn it back on for the last few miles. Fifi was whining and scratching at the leather seat when I figured out that she had never had dinner. I pulled into a Seven-Eleven and came out with a microwavable burrito for me and a can of dog food. I figured I would feed Fifi once I got to the hotel. No risk of damage to the car.

        My battery was at 9% when I pulled into the parking lot, carefully positioning my charge at the far end of the mostly empty space, where there was nobody parked on either side. I locked the little red gem, picked up Fifi and deposited her in my gym bag, then went to the hotel lobby.

        I was pleasantly surprised that I was already checked in and paid for. I put the envelope of expense money back in my pocket, accepted the key from the perky young desk attendant, and adjourned to my very clean room. I didn’t mention Fifi. I figured a Holiday Inn Express would probably allow pets, but there was no percentage in asking.

        I opened the can of dog food and spooned out the contents with a wooden coffee stirrer onto the plastic tray that had recently held a tiny coffee maker. Fifi didn’t mind the improvised food dish and inhaled the food in twenty seconds. I poured some water onto the same tray and she lapped most of that up happily. I was worried that she might need to poop or pee at some point before morning, but I had no clue about her elimination schedule. So, I decided to take a risk. If she pooped on the rug, it would be the maid’s problem.

        My instructions didn’t say when the owner of the red convertible, or somebody else, would come to pick it up. I figured that whoever did that would also take Fifi off my hands and give me my two grand so I could go home. I didn’t have a number to call. Without anything else to do, I took a long shower and went to bed. Fifi jumped up next to me and made a nest in the blanket. Fine with me. Not my bed. She was asleep before I was.

Part 3 – The Girl

        I was dreaming about Betty Mason and her lack of panties when I was awakened by a knock on my room’s door and a loud bark from Fifi. It took me a moment to orient myself. The knock came a second time –  three sharp raps, followed by a torrent of barking. Fifi leapt from the bed and scratched at the door with both front paws. I wished I had remembered to put a bottle of water on the nightstand as I tried to find enough saliva to chase the cotton from my mouth. The red numbers on the digital clock read 2:15. I was in my skivvies, but didn’t care. If this was the guy coming to claim the car and give me my cash, I would be thrilled to hand over the keys and the pooch, take the money, and go back to sleep.

        At the door, which lacked a peep hole, I croaked out “Who is it?” then coughed, still trying to both wake up and clear my throat.

        “I’m here for my dog,” came a female voice. Now, this surprised me. Not that I’m some kind of chauvinist or anything. It’s fine with me if whoever sent me on this trip wanted to send a girl to pick up the car. Or, maybe the client was the lady. It didn’t matter. But, like I said, I was standing there in my tighty-whities. I didn’t care if some dude saw me like that, but if the woman on the other side of my door was the client, I didn’t want to make a bad impression. I wanted to get more work from this organization. Answering the door like I’m a slob –  or a pervert –  wasn’t going to get that done.

        “Give me a minute,” I called back. I jumped into my jeans while Fifi whined and scratched the door. When I opened it, Fifi rushed out into the hallway and my jaw dropped. I didn’t mean to, but it just happened. The woman standing there was –  and I kid you not –  the most beautiful woman I had ever been within four feet of. Her face was like a barbie doll, with smooth, cream-colored skin and blue eyes. Dark auburn hair curled around her shoulders. She had on a shimmering top that hugged her neck, leaving her shoulders bare and falling over her chest like a golden waterfall until it ended above a bare midriff. She was wearing tight black yoga pants and red heels, but I didn’t notice that until much later. If she had ordered me to get on my hands and knees and lick Fifi’s butt, I would have done it without hesitating.

        As it turned out, she was the one down on her hands and knees a moment later, with Fifi up on her hind legs licking the woman’s face. Or maybe it was the woman licking the dog’s face. It was kind of a mutual French kissing situation.

        “Oh, my precious puppy. Mommy missed you so much,” she purred in a low, throaty voice while holding the pooch’s head in her hands. “Did you miss me? Did you? I know. I know.” Then she disengaged and looked up at me, standing over her like a zombie. Shirtless. Barefoot. Two-day growth of beard. I’m not a particularly attractive guy at the best of times, and I was most certainly not at my best in that moment.

        She looked up at me with eyes as big as quarters under thick lashes that even I could tell were fake. “Did you give Fifi her medicine?”

        I’m sure my facial expression gave away my utter confusion. I opened my mouth, then closed it again like a fish on the beach, but no words emerged.

        “You didn’t. You moron!” She scooped up the dog in bare, slender arms and pushed past me, into my hotel room, while I stood motionless, wracking my brain about whether I had somehow missed an instruction about giving medicine to Fifi. There was no way. It wasn’t on Eddie’s instructions sheet. Fat Wade Boggs in Boston had barely said two words to me and didn’t even mention the dog. He certainly didn’t give me any instructions. Could there have been a note inside the car that I missed? Hell no. I was in that car for nearly six hours. If there had been a note, I would have seen it. I searched the back seat at the rest stop looking for the damned leash. I stopped trying to think in my semi-awake state and followed them back into the room.

        The woman, whose name I didn’t know and certainly did not want to ask, had found the only chair and was sitting with legs crossed and Fifi on her lap, now curled up and resting comfortably. Her flurry of activity had sapped all the available strength in whatever body existed under all that white fluff. I slumped onto the unmade bed and held out my arms, palms up in surrender. “Look, Lady, nobody told me nothin’ about any medicine for your dog. Hell, nobody told me there was a dog along for the ride until I was in the car. The guy in Boston didn’t give me a leash, or any food, or a water dish, or nothin’ else. For sure no medicine. I’m real sorry. I kinda like the little puffball.”

        She furrowed her manicured brows at me, then said, “No food? You mean Fifi hasn’t eaten anything since Boston?”

        “No. No. I got her a can of dog food from the convenience store. She ate it all before we went to sleep.”

        “My God! She’s so off schedule. Did she poop?”

        “Huh?” was all I could manage.

        “Did you take her for a walk after she ate?” Fifi’s mommy was getting irritated with me for some reason. I was a driver, not a dog trainer.

        “No. It was late. She peed at the rest stop in Connecticut. I figured she was good ’till morning.”

        “Oh!” she stood suddenly, causing the dog to jump to the ground and spin around. “We have to take her out, immediately.”

        Now, I was still not thinking with a clear head, so I asked, “Do you have a leash?”

        “The leash is in the car, of course.” She was already halfway to the door, with Fifi trotting along behind. She had perked up her little head at the words “take her out” and was now happily heading in that direction. “Bring the keys,” she said as she turned left outside the door, toward the elevator.

        I scrambled to get my shoes and grabbed my dirty shirt from the floor so I could follow. This gig had now officially gone down the rabbit hole, but she was obviously the boss. If I wanted my two grand, I had to play along. The car keys were still in my jeans pocket, along with the key card for the room. When I made it to the elevator, still barefoot and carrying my shoes, the doors opened and I hopped on one foot putting on my loafers with no socks while we rode down the four floors to the basement parking garage. Fifi licked the toes on my left foot while I tried to put on my right shoe. I gently scratched her behind an ear to distract her, then put on the other shoe. “I’m real sorry. I did my best to get Fifi food and take care of her.” The lady stared at me, but I guess I looked pretty pathetic because her angry eyes softened.

        “Well, Fifi seems to like you. It doesn’t look like you abused her.” I led the way to the back, where the shiny red convertible sat waiting. “Fifi’s supplies are in the trunk. Didn’t you check there?” She stood with her weight all on her right leg, her left hip extended. It was at that moment I really noticed the black yoga pants. They were stretched tightly around her rear end, which was posed in front of the trunk, waiting for me to open the hatch. This was an old-time classic car. No remote control fob. Just a key. I didn’t respond to her question about whether I checked the trunk for the dog’s supplies. Hell no, I did not check the trunk. I’m no idiot. I would have bet my whole two grand 5-to-1 that there was something stashed in that car and that I was a very well-paid mule in this little excursion. It could be taped to the undercarriage, or hidden behind a panel, or inside a seat cushion. Or it could be in the trunk. The last thing I was going to do was start snooping around. Now, of course, I had no choice. But I was coming to the conclusion that, while this lady was undoubtedly Fifi’s owner, she might not be the person who had booked me to drive the car.

        I fished the key from my front pocket and moved past Ms. Yoga Hips toward the keyhole in the back of the convertible. The lighting in the garage wasn’t great, so it wasn’t until my hand was a few inches away from the cherry-red paint that I saw the gash. It was an ugly scar running from the bottom of the trunk, right above the license plate, up to the keyhole. The paint was flaked off and the steel beneath was twisted and exposed. I pulled back my hand, since the latch was already open. Any idiot could see that somebody had used a crowbar to pry open the trunk. I was fully screwed. I didn’t think the girl had seen the state of the car, so I put the key in the hole and pretended to pop open the already unlatched trunk. Once the lid was raised, she couldn’t see the damage.

        The lady peered into the space, lit by one dim 20-watt bulb set into the rear ceiling. She reached for a pink draw-string bag and pulled it out, then immediately squatted on the concrete floor with the dog. While she fussed with the dog’s equipment, I couldn’t help myself and looked around the rest of the trunk. There was the usual spare tire, jack, and a small transparent case full of tools. Standard trunk. Nothing else but well-vacuumed black carpeting. If I was the luckiest stiff on the planet, then some neighborhood kids saw the fancy car enter the garage, pried open the trunk hoping to find something valuable, then left when there was nothing there but dog toys and tools. In my life, I had never been so lucky, and I didn’t figure this would be the first time.

        My curvy companion had secured a pink harness and leash onto Fifi and was already walking away, her heels clacking on the garage floor. I tried to close the trunk softly, but the latch was bent and wouldn’t catch. I wondered if the tool kit I saw would have anything I could use to fix it before whoever really did hire me showed up. So much for getting any more sleep. I pushed down the lid and hustled to catch up. My sleepy mind was trying to figure my options about the damaged car and the likely stolen contents of the trunk, but first I had to get rid of the girl. I figured she would take the dog and leave, after Fifi did her business.

        She took the dog to the curb on the deserted street outside the garage entrance and I watched while Fifi did a little two-step dance, spun around three times, then finally squatted and pushed out a dainty poop. “Good dog!” the woman called out, patting Fifi on the head. Fifi found some new energy and bounded around the lady’s ankles, seemingly very proud of her little turds.

        “Clean that up,” she snapped at me as she led Fifi by the leash back toward the garage entrance.

        My first instinct was to tell her to clean up her own dog poop, but I managed to hold my tongue. I had no plastic bag, but I did have a napkin from the highway rest stop in my back pocket. One thin paper napkin. I carefully scooped up Fifi’s feces, getting most of it onto the paper. I carried it carefully to a trash can next to the garage entrance before realizing that the woman had already disappeared inside and wasn’t watching me. I could have left the shit on the street and she would have never known, and probably would not have cared. I swore under my breath at my gullibility, tossed the napkin in the bin, then trotted after them. I caught up at the elevator.

        “Where are you going?” I blurted out. It was a fair question, I thought. She had her dog, and her dog’s bag of stuff. She should be heading for her car, not back into the motel. It was clear she was not going to drive away in the convertible.

        “Where do you think? Back inside, Sherlock.”

        Now I was getting pissed, but she was still connected to my gig somehow. And she was still smoking hot, even if she was treating me like the hired help. “Aren’t you going home with Fifi now?”

        “No. I’m going to spend the night here.”

        I wasn’t going to quiz her about how she got to the hotel and why she couldn’t call for a cab to take her home. I was too worried about who jacked open the trunk of the convertible and what might have been inside with the doggie supplies. When the elevator stopped on the lobby floor, the woman and the dog exited. Fine, I thought. Let her get her own room. I continued up to the Fourth floor, planning to get properly dressed and then go back to the garage to see if I could do anything to fix the latch on the busted trunk.

        Four minutes later, when I opened my door and stepped out into the hallway, I bumped into the woman. She lurched backwards.

        “Be careful, you clod!” she snapped.

        “What are you doing here? Did you leave something behind?”

        She pursed her lips, looking at me like I was the source of all her problems. “No. But there are no rooms in the hotel. Apparently, there is a half-marathon tomorrow morning and all the runners are staying here. So, I’ll have to stay in your room. And—” she stopped, suddenly noticing my clothes. “Wait –  where are you going?”

        The door had closed behind me when I entered the hallway. I could have told her the truth, but I was pretty sure she hadn’t noticed the damage to the car. “I was awake, so I decided I’m hungry and was going out to find an all-night diner.”

        “Sounds good,” She said, “I could eat, also. We can leave Fifi in the room, now that she’s done her business.”

        She stood there, looking at me, then looking at the door to the room, tapping her toe on the dingy carpet. I dragged out my key and opened the door. She disappeared inside and returned without Fifi, while I stood in the hallway at two thirty in the morning trying to decide how to play the situation. I decided I had no options, so we went to the lobby to ask the sleepy desk attendant where we could find something to eat. It being New York City –  even in Brooklyn –  there was always something. We walked two blocks, found a diner, and ate our eggs and toast without a lot of conversation. Along the way, she told me her name was Delores. She didn’t say her last name, but at least I didn’t have to call her “babe” or “hey you.” We talked about Fifi and I told her I was from Jersey. By the time the check came, she was calling me Lenny.

        I was thinking of excuses for why I would leave her off at the room while I hustled back down to the garage when she stopped at the room door, waiting for me to open it. I touched my key card to the pad and immediately heard Fifi let out three high-pitched barks. I could hear her little claws scratching at the opposite side of the door as I opened it. If I were a gentleman, or if I had been thinking clearly, I would have stepped aside and let Delores go in first to greet her dog. So, I’m an idiot. In this case, the result was a searing pain on the side of my head the moment I stepped inside.

        I let out a yell and fell off-balance to my left, onto the floor. My right hand flew to the wet spot next to my ear as spikes of light flashed behind my closed lids. I’ve been hit in the head plenty of times, including once with a baseball bat. This felt more like a bowling ball. As I regained my senses, I rolled onto my back and held both arms in front of my face, to both ward off the next blow and to signal my surrender. I had no idea who was inside my room with a bowling ball, but I wasn’t there for a fight. I had nothing to protect. Before my eyes decided to focus again, I heard Delores and a male voice I didn’t recognize yelling at each other.

        “What did you do that for?” Delores said. “He could have hurt Fifi when he fell.”

        “What are you even doing here, Delores?” a male voice replied.

        “I came to get my dog!”

        “Did you put your stupid dog in my car?”

        “No, Geno put her in the car, in Boston.”

        “But you told him to.”

        “You said you were having the car driven home and I didn’t want to wait until Gwen comes down next week.”

        “You are such a pain in the ass, Delores.”

        “You know Fifi doesn’t like to fly in those cramped crates. It gives her the shakes for weeks. I wanted her to come in the car, so I asked Geno to take care of it.”

        “And you didn’t think to tell me?”

        “You would have said no.”

        “You’re damn right I would. And how did you know she was going to be delivered to this shit-bag hotel?” The man was getting more agitated. I could see him pretty clearly by then. He was big, with broad shoulders, a square jaw covered with a carpet of black stubble, and short black hair. He was wearing a track suit, with a jacket that matched the pants. From where I was laying, he looked to be about eight feet tall, towering over Delores, but my perspective was way off. I had never seen him before.

        “I asked Geno where the pick-up was so I could come get Fifi,” she replied calmly, as if it were the most obvious of points.

        “And Geno just told you?” For the first time since I regained my senses, the man, who I presumed was Delores’s husband, seemed flustered rather than simply angry.

        “Of course. I love Geno. He would tell me anything.”

        “Jesus, Delores. I told you not to let your stupid sister take Fifi. Who else did you tell about this being the drop site for the car?”

        “Nobody,” Delores dropped her head as she spoke. I’m no sleuth, but it was pretty obvious she was lying.

        “Did you drive yourself here?”

        She looked up now, defiant. “No. I asked Kelly to drive me.”

        “Jesus Christ! You had your tramp girlfriend drop you off at a shit-hole motel in the middle of the night so you could get your dog. I suppose you told her that Fifi was here because she was being driven down from Boston and that I was going to meet you here. Is that about right?”

        Delores didn’t answer, which was effectively a “yes.” The man, who had been standing, sat down on the bed. I saw a round black iron weight with a U-shaped handle on the floor next to him. I recognized it as a piece of equipment you would see in a gym. Big guys with thick necks lift them with their pinky fingers. I surmised that the weight was the bowling ball the man had used to clock me when I entered the room. He probably borrowed it from the hotel’s “health club,” which in a Holiday Inn Express is usually a treadmill, a rack of free weights, and a yoga mat. What I couldn’t figure is what my skull had done to deserve a dent. It was about that time that the man looked at me and realized that I wasn’t unconscious.

        “And where have you been with this moron?”

        “Lenny took me to a diner because we were hungry, Tony. Is that a crime now?”

        “You said you came to get your damned dog. You got the dog, so why stick around? Were you planning to screw him before you went home?

        “No, Tony, you idiot. If I wanted to screw him, I would have done that first and then gone out to eat. You know I hate to have sex on a full stomach.”

        While this was going on, I decided not to stick around to ask for my two grand. I was lucid enough to figure out that Tony was not going to be happy about the damage to his car, and about the absence of whatever had been in his trunk. I crawled in the direction of the door, but I guess the motion caught his attention, because he stood up suddenly, took two strides in my direction and planted a vicious kick into my ribs.

        “Where the fuck do you think you’re going, moron?”

        I pride myself in not giving guys the satisfaction of hearing me grunt or groan when they hit me. I didn’t make a sound when Tony bruised my ribs, but it took me a moment to catch my breath enough to respond to his question. I held up my index finger, asking for a minute, and the guy took a step back and waited. So, I figured him as an honorable man, and not a complete thug. When I was able to inhale again, I said, “I thought you two would want to be alone, so I was gonna wait in the hallway.” This actually produced a smile from Tony, so I continued. “I just drove the car. I followed the instructions. I didn’t tell nobody where I was. But then Delores showed up. So, I was just trying to be polite.”

        Tony nodded his head. “OK, Schmuck, that’s great. Except I saw my car down in the garage. You opened the trunk. Did Geno in Boston not tell you that you should not, under any circumstances, open the trunk?”

        Tony was looking down at me, his right leg hovering over the dirty carpet, ready to kick me again. He was waiting for me to say something that would be kick-worthy. I thought about what I could say that might avoid more pain, but I was still not thinking clearly, so I opted for the truth. “Hey, Tony, I—” It took all my effort to not grunt when the kick came. I squeezed my abs and hunched my back so I was in a fetal position, trying to absorb the impact.

        “Did I give you permission to call me Tony? Huh, shit-for-brains?”

        “Oh, Tony, you are such a jerk,” I heard Delores say. It gave me a little confidence, knowing I had support from Tony’s wife.

        “No,” I croaked out, sucking wind. “I’m sorry.”

        “You will address me as Mr. Moreno or Sir. Is that clear?”

        I nodded, taking in breath through my nose while my teeth were clenched.

        “Now, I’m going to ask you again, and don’t try to bullshit me or I swear I will kill you right now.”

        “Yes, Mr. Moreno.” I did not choose to point out that I had no way of knowing that his last name was Moreno until he just told me. It was a fair point, but did not figure to gain me any advantage. “When Del—er when your lovely wife knocked on the door and woke me, she said she wanted to get the dog’s leash and such and she went with me to the garage and told me to unlock the trunk, which I did because she asked me to and I figured I should do what she said.”

        Tony Moreno looked at his wife, who was now sitting comfortably on the only chair in the room, watching with some interest. “Is that true, Delores? Did you tell this Schmuck to open the trunk?”

        “Sure I did,” she said, then stared defiantly.

        “What did you do with the package that was in the trunk?” Tony directed the question toward his wife, so I kept my mouth shut.

        Delores said, “I took Fifi’s bag, Tony. There was nothin’ else in the stupid trunk of your stupid car.”

        “It’s a classic. It’s not stupid. That car is worth a quarter mil, baby. You know that. But that’s not the point. Do you think I had this moron drive the car down from Boston because I wanted to wax it this weekend?”

        “I don’t give a shit,” Delores snapped back. “I just wanted my Fifi back.”

        Now, it occurred to me to ask why Delores’s sister had Fifi in Boston when Tony and Delores were in Brooklyn. There had to be a story there. I kept the question to myself. I was still laying prone on the floor and not looking to invite any further pummeling. I actually could have gotten up, and I might have been able to take Tony in a fight, but punching this guy did not seem likely to get me paid, or get me future assignments from the organization. For all I knew, he had more guys hiding in the bathroom, ready to come out and roll me down the stairs if I started fighting back. So, I listened when he asked, “What about you, Dipshit? Did you see anything besides the doggie bag in the trunk?”

        “No,” I said quickly. “There’s a tool kit and a spare tire, but nothin’ else. I swear.”

        “You were supposed to make sure nothing happened to the car,” Tony’s voice became oddly calm. This worried me.

        “I did. I did just what I was told. If something happened to your package, it’s not my fault.”

        Tony rubbed a hand across the stubble on his chin, then said, “Get up. We’re goin’ downstairs.”

        I got to my feet and stumbled along behind Tony Moreno, back to the elevator and back down to the garage. When we got to the car, he asked me whether the gash above the latch was there when Delores and I came down to get the dog’s bag. I said it was, and repeated that I was “sure” when he asked again.

        “Why did you park the car all the way in the back like this, where somebody could come along and break in without being seen?”

        “I wanted to make sure nobody scratched the car when they opened a door next to it, so I parked it somewhere without anybody else parked nearby.”

        Tony nodded again, seemingly understanding that I was looking out for the best interests of the car.

        “The problem is,” Tony said, then paused, “that I don’t fucking believe you.” Before I realized what was happening, Tony swept his leg across my ankles and grabbed the back of my shirt, pulling me backwards as I lost my balance. I hit the concrete floor hard, but rolled away from him, which was the correct move. Unfortunately for me, the two guys I figured might be hiding in the bathroom were actually hiding around the corner from where the car was parked. They rushed out as soon as Tony raised his voice, and between the three of them, they pinned me down, then tied my hands behind my back with duct tape and did the same to my ankles. For good measure they wrapped more tape around my knees and slapped a strip across my mouth. Then they carried me to where Tony’s other car was parked and deposited me unceremoniously in the trunk of this 1997 Lincoln.

Part 4 – The Trunk

        When the car started moving, I worked at the duct tape with my fingernails. I’ve been tied up with duct tape before, and it’s much less secure than most people think. Give me a good nylon rope and the guy I tie up ain’t getting loose. Duct tape is fine for ankles, but for hands it can be easily breached. Once you get a small tear, it rips pretty easily. So, after ten minutes or so, I had freed myself from the bad tie-up job, but I was still stuck in the damned trunk, with no emergency release lever. All I could do was plan for what I was going to do when Tony opened the trunk –  and how I was going to beat the crap out of my cousin Eddie for getting me into this spot.

        When I felt the car slow down and make a sharp right, then heard the crunch of gravel under the tires, I figured my time was getting short. If I were Tony, and if my package had been stolen, I would assume that the driver –  me –  was in on the scam, or at least knew who did it. I would take me somewhere quiet, extract as much information as possible, and then leave the body where nobody would find it for a long time. So, I had nothing to lose by trying to find another option. I felt around in the dark trunk for something I could use as a weapon. I found a wooden coat hanger wedged deep in the back. It was pretty sturdy, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to use it to subdue three big guys who probably had guns.

        Then I remembered that I still had my phone in my pocket. I really am an idiot. I could have called for help twenty minutes earlier, although I’m not sure who I would have called. Who’s going to come rescue me? Eddie? Not likely. Who was going to vouch for me? Nobody except Eddie knew I had gone on this gig. Am I the kind of person who would steal a valuable package –  probably drugs –  from Tony Moreno if I had a chance? Yeah, I kinda am. My argument about how I would never have done that because I really want to get on the good side of the organization would not be likely to persuade anybody.

        The car rolled to a stop, the trunk suddenly very quiet. I heard the passenger doors open and close, then the sound of six feet walking toward the back of the car. When the key went into the lock, I squeezed my right hand around the coat hanger and waited. The lid lifted up, causing a dim light to turn on inside the trunk. Outside the car, it was dark, with a shimmer of moonlight. My pupils were so dilated from being in the dark trunk so long that I could see pretty well. I knew they would expect me to be still tied up, so I had a very small element of surprise. A very wise man once taught me to have my gun out and ready whenever confronting a potentially hostile person, even if you think they are incapacitated. Just in case. Tony Moreno and his two goons were not so well-trained.

        As soon as the lid was high enough, I lurched upward, which hurt like hell on account of me being curled up in a ball for a half hour, not to mention probably having a concussion. I swung my wooden hanger in a wide arc and yelled as loud as I could manage. My three captors jumped back. They probably couldn’t tell immediately what I had in my hand. It could have been a machete. I jumped out of the trunk and immediately collapsed to one knee with a cramp in my calf. That pain was nothing compared to having my head removed, so I scrambled as fast as I could toward the front of the car.

        Tony and the other guys figured out I was running and not fighting and came after me. I made it to the front of the Lincoln, jumped up onto the hood, and then climbed onto the roof, while the three guys all pulled out their pistols and pointed them at me. This was actually what I wanted. They had me surrounded. I threw the hanger over the hood and held up my arms in surrender. I knew they wanted to get me to talk or they would have killed me already. So, I started talking.

        “Mr. Moreno, sir, I can understand why you’re pissed off and why you think I had something to do with you losing your package. I get it. I was responsible for the car. Even if I didn’t know what was in the trunk, it was in my care, so it’s my fault. I swear to God I don’t know who broke into the trunk or how they knew the car was there. But, Mr. Moreno, your wife did get that information from Geno, who I assume is the clod in the Red Sox shirt who turned the car over to me in Boston. The bastard didn’t tell me the dog was in the back seat, or put her bag of crap inside the car where I could find it. So, he’s a douchebag. He knew where the car was going. I certainly didn’t tell him, so he knew from somebody else. So, maybe he told somebody who was waiting for me to get there and saw where I parked and then busted open your trunk.”

        The three guys still had their guns pointed at me, but Tony was listening and not shooting, so that was good. “Look, I mean, if I were going to steal your package, I would have gotten the hell out of there afterwards. I wouldn’t have stuck around to wait for you. I could have left Fifi in the room and been long gone. And for sure I would not have pried open the trunk, because I had the key, right?”

        Tony lowered his gun. Then, one of the other guys said, “Boss, if it were me, I would bust open the trunk to make it look like it was somebody else.”

        I looked at this guy from my perch atop the Lincoln. He was big, with a bald head and gloves on his hands.

        “You know, that makes sense, man. I have to tell you, I’m not smart enough to have thought of that. Shit. But, even if I ruined that beautiful car just as a cover, why would I stick around so you guys could grab me? Am I that stupid, Mr. Moreno?”

        “Yeah, Schmuck, I suspect you are that stupid.” Tony waved his gun in front of him as he spoke. “I think you had somebody else take away my product. You figured you could sell it, or cut it yourself and distribute it. You knew I would find you and cut your balls off if you took off and left Fifi alone in that shit-can hotel room. So, I would like you to please come down off my car so we can have a little talk and then I’m going to cut your balls off, feed them to you, and then dump you over there in the woods before the sun comes up.”

        “OK. Fine. I will come down. But one thing . . .”

        I pulled my phone out of my pocket and held it up, punching the speaker button. A tinny voice said, “Sir, please tell me your location so I can dispatch a unit.” In the still early morning air, the voice carried clearly to Tony.

        “I think you should turn that off,” Tony said slowly.

        I pushed the power button, after which the unit buzzed and went silent. I wasn’t entirely sure if I had powered it down or if the battery had just given out. “Now, Mr. Moreno, sir, I’m not the kind of guy who would want to make things difficult for you. Really. I only want to help. I did what I was told to do. I’m totally willing to tell the cops that this was all an elaborate practical joke that I was pulling on you and we’ll all have a good laugh about it and I’ll swear on video tape that you and your boys here never threatened me and that the whole conversation with the 9-1-1 operator was just a gag and you can forget about it. But, in order to do that, I’m going to have to be alive, as you can imagine. So, what do you say? We put all this behind us and go our separate ways and no hard feelings?”

        Tony dropped his gun hand to his side and started laughing. “You God damned son of a bitch. You are either a genius or an idiot, or maybe both. We kill you now and we’ll have the cops up our butts in a heartbeat. We let you go and kill you later and we’ll have the same problem. So, come on down from there and let’s talk.”

        I climbed down from the roof, careful not to dent the car or leave footprints on the windshield. When I reached the gravel, the three guys surrounded me real close. Tony turned to one of the two helpers. “Reggie, did you not search this schmuck and take away his phone before you stashed him in the trunk?”

        Reggie shuffled his feet. “Boss, we tied him up good. I made sure he didn’t have a gun. We were going to squeeze him for what he knew and then ice him, so I didn’t think there was any reason to go through his pockets.”

        “So, you’re a bigger moron than he is, huh?”

        Reggie didn’t respond. His companion also stayed silent.

        “Get in the fuckin’ car,” Tony stuffed his gun into his waistband and headed for the front passenger seat. Reggie was the driver. I waited for the other guy to walk toward the far side of the Lincoln before walking as upright as I could manage to the rear door.

        We got back to the Holiday Inn Express a little after the sun came up. There were dozens of people out in front on the sidewalk, wearing running clothes with numbers pinned to their chests. Reggie parked the car. Tony waited for me to struggle out of the back seat. I had dried blood on the right side of my head. My ribs felt like a hot fire poker was stuck in them. I’m sure I looked like warm shit.

        “I suppose you’re going to the hospital?” he asked.

        “Naw. I know a guy who can patch me up. I don’t like doctors. They tend to report private stuff that I’d rather keep to myself.”

        Tony nodded. “You’re one tough son of a bitch, Lenny. So, can I trust you not to run to the cops before my lawyers get you in front of a camera to swear to the whole practical joke thing?”

        “Yeah. Sure. I ain’t goin’ anywhere. Just call my cousin, Eddie. He knows how to get me.”

        Tony turned back to the Lincoln. He reached inside and emerged with an envelope in his hand. He gave it to me and I stuffed it into my back pocket. “Aren’t you going to count it?”

        “Nah. I know you’re an honorable guy, Mr. Moreno.”

        “Aren’t you going to say, ‘thank you?’”

        I thought about telling him to stick his ‘thank you’ in his ass, but I decided not to piss him off, seeing as how he had not killed me. “Thank you, sir.” I handed him the keys to his magnificent car. “If you need another job . . . .”

        “Geez. You really do have brass balls. I’ll think about it.”

        Tony walked to the gorgeous red convertible and a minute later was screaming out of the garage, smoke spitting from twin tailpipes. Reggie followed in the Lincoln. I went back to my hotel room, which still smelled of Fifi’s dogfood. The round weight was on the floor. I figured I’d wash it down and return it to the gym before I checked out. I took another shower to wash my own blood off me, then went back to bed.

        I dreamed I was punching my cousin Eddie.