Starting Over

As Tank flipped a hamburger the back of his neck clenched. Reflexively he ducked, clutched his spatula as if it were a knife and swung his eyes through the kitchen pass-through and across his tiny restaurant to the front door. The white Caribbean sun blazed in the open and empty doorway. He blinked the brightness out of his eyes. It was two years since he’d felt that clench: the six muscle, as his platoon had called it: how your sixth sense warned you to watch your six.

He straightened, feeling sheepish. This was St. John island, not Fallujah. He dropped the spatula on the prep counter, pushed through the kitchen door and scanned the dining room. His only customers were Big Bob and a young woman. Annuska, his waitress, dusted framed photographs of St. John from the early 1900s. The clench in his neck wouldn’t let go. He crossed to the doorway and stepped into the breathtaking afternoon heat. Down the street toward Cruz Bay a few tourists hiked the shimmering asphalt toward the ferry. He pivoted, shielded his eyes from the sun and stared up the street. There. A block away. A tall woman lugging a roller case. From behind, a long pony tail and tight jeans. Sandals. Some kind of short-sleeved peasant blouse. But it was the way she walked, the shape of her. He squinted, the sun hot on his forehead, the air slipping from his lungs.

It couldn’t be. Kathy?

The woman turned a corner and was gone. Impossible. Not after two years. He hesitated, the tightness in his neck seeping away, then reentered the tepid shade of his restaurant. Felt Big Bob’s eyes on his back the entire way to the kitchen.

The hamburger was burned, the plantains in the deep fryer as brittle as coral.

“You needed fresh air?”

Tank glanced at the pass-through. Annuska was hunched down to look at him, her brown eyes as sharp as her cheekbones, her neck-length black hair tucked behind her ears.

“I thought I recognized someone.” He dropped a new patty on the flat-top and pointed at it. “I’ll take it out to Big Bob. Say something for making him wait.”

“Yes. Do not anger him. I tell you that.”

Tank flipped the burger, added cheese and placed a lid over it, then finished prepping a salad. He worked automatically, his mind riveted on what he had seen outside. The shape of the woman, the sun glancing off her light brown hair. It was Kathy, it had to be. He remembered her BMW’s taillights flickering as she bounced over the curb at the end of the driveway. The hard acceleration away, all at the same time that Dom’s coke deal imploded, leaving Manny dead on the warehouse floor and Dom propped against a crate thanking God again and again for his bulletproof vest, the stolen $200,000 an afterthought. And later the rumors: Kathy in Miami tight with one of the bosses there. Deals getting done.

Tank plated the fresh cheeseburger and plantains and placed them in the pass-through next to the salad. Circled out of the kitchen. He took a plate in each hand thinking one thing: Had Kathy come to collect? The debt he owed her was unfathomable. He could never repay it. But he would try, he owed her that.

Big Bob watched as Tank crossed the restaurant with the plates, his dark eyes the same coffee-grind color as his skin, his shaved skull catching the light. Seated, Big Bob was almost eye level to Tank, his chest as big as a wheelbarrow.

“Sorry,” said Tank when he reached the table. “I thought I saw someone I knew. I had to cook your lunch again.”

Tank slid the salad under the bowed head of the girl across from Big Bob. She jerked her face toward him, surprise and confusion knitted in her forehead. The blacks of her eyes were oversized and empty. Tank placed the cheeseburger platter in front of Big Bob and glanced at the girl’s elbow for track marks.

“You know,” said Big Bob, “when you walked out of the kitchen before, I thought from your face that you had seen a ghost. But a moment later? I changed my mind. A spirit. It was as if you had seen a spirit.”

Tank waited as Big Bob leaned toward him, almost daintily. “Do you know the difference, my friend? Between a ghost and a spirit?”

“Yes.” He checked the doorway. “One’s dead and the other never dies. Why?”

Big Bob leaned back, a vanilla aftershave remaining in the air. “Yes. You understand.” His eyes stared off into the distance. “So you understand how the dead live among us.”

Tank was silent. Death he understood. Two tours in Iraq had seen to that. What he didn’t follow was Big Bob’s point.

“Saying the dead live doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Sorry again for making you wait.”

“Wait. That girl, the spirit. She looked in here. I saw her. Beautiful. A woman men dream about. And the way she carries herself. So natural. Her beauty is part of all things.”

“Yeah right, OK.” Tank pivoted and returned to the kitchen. Leaned against the walk-in cooler, away from the pass-through so he couldn’t be seen.

So Kathy had stood in the doorway and looked in. And if he could see the front door through the pass-through, then she had seen him in the kitchen. The dining room was barely fifteen feet across. Kathy had seen him and chosen to leave.

“I am worried for you.” Annuska stepped just inside the kitchen door. She was almost the same height as Tank, her t-shirt tight to her slim waist and heavy chest.

“I said earlier. I thought I recognized someone.”

“This woman who looked in the door?”

“You saw her as well?”

“I do. She has figure like mine. How do you know her?”

Tank glanced at Annuska’s body. In a rush, he realized she was right. Annuska’s build was almost exactly the same as Kathy’s, although Annuska stood a few inches taller.

“In Pittsburgh,” he said, pulling his eyes to her face. “I body guarded a guy for a couple of years. He had a girlfriend named Kathy. She took off in a hurry one night along with her brother.” The last sentence skated over so much information it was almost a lie, but he wasn’t about to explain. “I haven’t seen her since. I thought that was her.”

Annuska nodded, her dark eyes never leaving him. “And you liked this girl?”

“It’s more complicated than that. We never dated, we just got along, if that’s what you’re asking. But it was like we knew to trust one another somehow.”

“And Big Bob saw her. I heard him say.”

“Yeah. It set off his weird philosophical crap.”

Annuska was quiet. Tank watched her start another line of thought. “And this girl sitting with Big Bob, you know what he is doing?” She grew rigid, her hands balled into fists.

“Yes, I do.”

“Every time he come, a different girl. So many. He drugs them. Tells them what to eat. Even when to go to bathroom.”

Tank nodded.

“And who stops this? Where are these police?”

Disgust bottomed inside him. He closed his eyes and opened them but couldn’t hold back the exhaustion that had started in Pittsburgh and driven him south, to St. John and this tiny restaurant. As if sunlight, heat and distance could chase it all away. He had started to think nothing could.

“Why do you care?”

Her brown eyes lost focus for a moment. “I see this in Hungary.” Her accent thickened. “I live in little town. The men come and make promises to the good looking girls. You come with us. Good work. Make money to send home. My cousin does this, and my friend. I say no. But those girls, they go. No one hears from them again. I save three years to get here. And this is good.” She waved at the restaurant. Her eyes snapped into focus. “Big Bob is like those men and I do not like him.”

“He is one of those men.”

“He must be stopped.”

“It’s been like that since the beginning of time.” He heard the tiredness in his voice.

Annuska stood stone still. “I do not think time has anything to do with this.” She glared right into him. Tank held her look for a moment. She was right. It had nothing to do with time. It had to do with men.

“Your English is getting better,” he said finally.

“And you, at last, you talk. Tell me things. Most times you are like ghost.”

Tank breathed carefully. “Keep away from Big Bob. You know he watches you, right?”

“I know this. You think I do not know when a man watches me?” Her eyes searched his. “Or when a man does not?”

Tank’s face tightened. “Just be careful around him.”

“It is time you stop being ghost. I have decided.” She backed through the kitchen door, watching him the entire time.

Tank chose not to ask what she meant.

***

Two days later, after the cruise ship day trippers had finished their lunches and rushed for the ferry, Annuska appeared in the pass-through. “Big Bob is here. You come quick.”

Tank stripped off his apron, his six muscle clenched. Big Bob was seated at his usual table, a woman across from him. Even from the back Tank knew it was Kathy. As he crossed the restaurant he watched Kathy’s head sway to music only she could hear.

Big Bob was balanced on the back legs of his chair. He smiled a mouthful of yellow teeth.

“You see,” he called as Tank approached. “I brought her to you. Your spirit.”

“What did you do to her?” Tank studied Kathy, but her face was toward the tabletop.

Big Bob waved his hand, smiling. “It is the islands. People try new things. It is the way of all things.”

“Bullshit. She doesn’t do that crap. Not by choice.”

Big Bob’s eyes narrowed and he banged his chair onto all four legs. Tank edged closer. He saw Big Bob register the movement.

“You seem upset, little man. Now do you see how my world is broader than yours?”

Annuska stepped next to Tank, her hip touching his. “You are to go,” she said to Big Bob. Tank’s hip grew warm where Annuska touched him.

Big Bob pointed a thick finger at Tank. “I came here to offer you a gift.” He waved his hand at Kathy. “You wish to see her, here is your chance.” He leaned close and Tank smelled the vanilla aftershave. “You can have her all night.” He turned his face to Annuska, watching her face, but talking to Tank. “You can do anything you wish to her. Think of that.

Anything. She will give you her body all night long. It is a dream.”

Nothing showed on Annuska’s face.

Tank looked at Kathy. “Kathy, do you want to stay here?  You don’t have to go anywhere with him.”

Kathy’s head stopped swaying. It was as if she was orienting to Tank’s voice. “Kathy,” said Tank again.

Kathy swayed to her feet, her shoulders hunched, her eyes hollow. She placed the palms of her hands on the table to hold herself upright.

“No.” The word was an effort. She managed to draw her eyes to Tank. “I came here to meet him. Through tonight. Tonight.”

“You see?” said Big Bob. “She and I are spirits together this night. Partners. So she will be with me tonight, and you have lost your only chance to have her.”

“Get out.”

Big Bob rose, towering over them. He took Kathy’s wrist and tugged her toward the door. “Now, tell me,” he said over his shoulder. “Do you still think your spirit will live forever?”

“Nobody lives forever,” said Tank.

“And you are already a ghost.” Big Bob led Kathy into the blinding white sunlight.

Annuska stepped away, leaving a coolness where her hip had rested against him. Tank turned for the kitchen but noticed a folded newspaper on Kathy’s chair: The St. John Tradewinds weekly. When he picked it up it was still warm, as if Kathy had kept it under her thigh. On the facing page was a tide table listing beaches and high and low tides. The time of a high tide that night was circled in pen. He slid the paper into his pocket.

Annuska followed him into the kitchen. “I do not understand. She chooses to be with him? I do not believe it. You must help her.”

Tank pivoted and faced her, the kitchen suddenly small. “You know I had that, right? I appreciate you stepping up next to me, but I had it. I don’t want you getting hurt.”

Annuska folded her arms under her breasts, watching him. “Every night I go home, I study English. You know this? Two nights ago I learn new word: wallflower. Do you know the meaning of this word?”

Tank hesitated, unsure of her point. “I do,” he said finally.

“OK,” said Annuska. “So you know. I am not wallflower.”

It was as if something snapped inside him. He couldn’t help himself. A chuckle leaked out, followed by a laugh. He closed his eyes, laughing, and warm relief spread through him.

It took him a moment to get his breath back. When he looked at Annuska her arms were still folded under her breasts but the corners of her mouth were curled in a smile.

“OK,” said Tank. “Actually, I knew that. You are not a wallflower. I know that.”

She nodded. “Good. And so. Now I know you can laugh. I have never seen it before.”

“I needed that. So. Wallflower. You think you can help me with something tonight?  It’s a two person job.”

“Good. This I can do.” She frowned slightly. “What is it we do?”

“Be back here at 11:00. Then, you and I, we’re going for a drive. We’re going to a beach and I’m going to make sure Kathy gets home. I don’t want Big Bob anywhere near her.”

Annuska studied him. “I am glad you ask me to do this. It is time.”

***

Just after midnight Tank guided his Nissan Cube up a dirt road near Coral Bay, the restaurant 45 minutes west of them. The Cube bumped slowly along as Tank searched for a gap among the trees. A moment later he reversed off the road, lurching over roots. Somewhere behind them were the ruins of Fort Frederiksvaern, overlooking the Fortsberg water battery and the small rocky beach Kathy had circled on the tide chart. Tank cut the engine and looked at Annuska.

“You sure about this?”

She had changed into black jeans and a long-sleeved black t-shirt, and wore the same black sneakers she used to waitress. “I am ready.” Her voice was a notch higher than usual.

“OK.” Tank switched the door light into the off position and opened the door. “Take your time and let your eyes adjust to the darkness.”

Outside, Tank opened the drivers side back door and unlocked a metal box in the foot well. With the help of a small flashlight, he removed his SIG P220, belt holster and two clips. Annuska appeared out the darkness next to him, her eyes locked on the SIG.

“This you know how to use?”

“I do.” He slid a clip into the butt and chambered a round. Placed it in the holster and clipped it to his belt. The movements were familiar, almost a relief.

“How do you know this gun?”

Tank slid the extra clip into his pocket. “Army. Five years.” It was a long time since he had told anyone about that time, and it felt odd to him.

“Iraq?”

Tank looked at her. In the darkness her skin had a milky quality. “Two tours. How else would I get the nickname Tank?”

“So, like tank the army machine, not tank for hot water?”

He saw her smile and realized she was glad to be talking, happy to burn off the nervousness.

“Like the weapon.” He held his arms out to his sides. “Aren’t I wide enough for you?” He was 5’9” and had weighed 210 pounds when he enlisted, most of it in a chest and pair of shoulders that should have belonged to down lineman.

“You are wide enough for me,” she answered.

Tank felt himself smile as he locked the box and the Cube. Carrying a pair of 2-way radios he led her 10 yards back into the undergrowth. He squatted and she did the same. He checked the 2-ways batteries, aligned the channel and handed her one.

“Take this and go back to the last corner on the road. Find a hiding spot with a view of the road. If someone comes, I just need to know how many people. Hit this talk button one time for each person. So, one person, hit the button once. Two people, hit the button twice, and so on. Do you have it?”

She nodded. A frown crossed her forehead. “Why not speak into this?”

“No voices. They might hear.” Tank help up the ear bud hanging from the 2-way. “Keep this in your ear. I’ll do the same. If people show up, let me know, then wait five minutes to see if anyone else comes. If they do, let me know how many, same way as before. Then go back to the Cube. Wait there. If you hear shots, wait 5 minutes. No more. If you don’t hear from me drive the Cube back to the restaurant, leave the keys in the kitchen and go home. If anyone asks you were home all night, you don’t know anything about it.” He handed her the keys.

She nodded. “What is to happen?”

“I’m guessing, but I heard Kathy was working in Miami putting deals together. Big Bob runs the women on the islands, but he also runs all the drugs. If she came to meet Big Bob it was to put a deal together. The tide table tells us when and where. I think Kathy gave me the tide table so I can cover her back.”

“You will stop this deal?”

“I don’t know. I just want Kathy to walk free.”

She nodded, her eyes hooded. “I do not like this. I do not like to go back without you.”

“If I’m not back in 5 minutes then there’s nothing you can do anyway.” He looked right into her eyes to make sure she understood. “You do it. You go back.”

She held his gaze. The sea wind moved in the trees, rustling the tree leaves and hiding the distant shush of the surf break. Something lightened in her eyes.

“I do not know your name. Everyone call you Tank. What is your real name?”

Tank was silent; the question surprised him. “Kevin Kozlowski,” he said slowly. The words felt odd on his tongue.

“Then good luck, Kevin Kozlowski.” She leaned over, kissed him on the forehead and as quickly rose and disappeared toward the road.

Tank listened to her movements through the woods, the feel of her kiss on his forehead. A smile crept onto his face. When it was quiet again he stood and hiked to the ruins of the water battery. He settled into one of the gun ports overlooking the beach and waited, thinking about Annuska’s kiss, surrounded by rusting cannon and crumbling defensive walls. Two months earlier she had walked into the restaurant, dumped her oversize backpack next to a table and ordered his Pittsburgh special. Not the half size, but the full mixed grill. She had eaten every crumble of sausage and streak of cheese, every home fry, watching him the entire time. At checkout, standing eye to eye as he punched the cash register buttons, she had announced that he needed a waitress. She was available. For some reason — apart from her appetite — he had hired on the spot.

And now this.

He glanced at his watch. Two minutes after high tide. The night was cloudless and starlit with a quarter moon. The surf was a rolling line of luminous water, surging gently to the beach and settling back in a rhythm unchanged since earth began.

Slowly, almost daintily, his six muscle clenched. As he scanned the horizon for a boat static clattered in his ear bud once, twice, three times. Silence. Tank swung his legs out of the gun port and headed downhill through the trees, angling toward the beach. When the hill leveled off he slid his SIG from its holster and moved from tree to tree, parallel to the beach, alert to anything ahead.

Voices. Tank dropped to one knee and oriented to the sound. He scanned the woods, probing the filtered moonlight, until he spotted the shadows of three people. Big Bob’s bulk followed a tall shadow, while behind, dragged by the arm, came a third person. Kathy. They passed within 20 feet of him, the lead man carrying a duffel. A mosquito buzzed the sweat on the back of Tank’s neck and he swatted at it, then glanced into the bay. If Big Bob was here the boat would be close, everyone headed to a prearranged GPS point.

Tank reflexively squatted lower. He hadn’t accounted for the men in the boat. If several men came ashore for the meet he would be outnumbered. He needed to get ahead of that.

A wave broke along the shore and in the after quiet came a steady mechanical thrum.

Tank rose, the technicals of what he had to do clicking in his brain. Adrenaline surged through him like white light and he rode it, enjoying the feel of it. He filtered among the trees until he was well to the right of the group on the beach. He wanted an approach angle that put Big Bob’s bulk between him and the tall man. Tank gripped the SIG. The thrumming of the engine was louder and Tank spotted the boat’s shadow perhaps 75 yards offshore. He emptied his lungs in a long slow breath to steady himself, then strode quickly toward the group, his pistol at hip level.

As he had hoped, the engine and surf hid his footfalls. He shifted left slightly to keep Kathy as far as possible from the line of fire. As he did a stone clattered and Big Bob snapped his head in his direction, his eyes luminous. Tank raised his arm and fired twice into the center mass of Big Bob’s back from less than ten feet. As Big Bob collapsed Tank flexed down into firing position. The tall man spun toward him.

“Freeze” he shouted.

The man’s chest and shoulders compacted inward at the sight of Tank’s automatic.

“Drop the bag. You armed? Are you armed?” Tank rose out of his firing position, thrusting the SIG at his face, riding adrenaline and his advantage. The man dropped the duffel and raised his arms. In the same instant the boat’s engine guttered and revved. They were turning to run, exactly as Tank had hoped.

“Are you armed?” Tank shouted again.

The man nodded hard, his eyes wide and glowing white in the darkness.

“OK. Do as I say and you live. Show me the weapon. Slowly!”

The man nodded. He pivoted carefully so Tank could see the weapon on his hip.

“OK.” Tank waved his free hand to move the man along. “Thumb and one finger on the butt, out of the holster and onto the bag.”

Big Bob coughed wetly and one of his legs moved on the pebbles. The man dropped his automatic onto the duffel.

“Go.” Tank nodded in the direction of the woods. “Go. Take the vehicle you came in.”

The man blinked, not believing him.

“GO!”

The man sidled to his right and broke into a run as he neared the tree line. Tank crossed to Big Bob, scanning the ground for his weapon. He was lying on his left side, his arm underneath him, his mouth and eyes wide, each breath a rasp. His pistol was still holstered on his belt. Kathy sat a few feet away from him, her knees drawn up underneath her chin, rocking slowly. Tank stared down at Big Bob and somehow the man met his eye, the same look a hooked fish gives in shallow water when the fight is over.

Tank wiped away the sweat above his lip with his free hand, his eyes on Big Bob. “You said a couple of days ago the dead live among us.” He watched for understanding in Big Bob’s eyes. “You remember? I have no clue what you meant. All I know is that if you want to live among the dead that means you’re dead.” He raised the SIG and squeezed off a single shot into the center of his chest. Big Bob coughed. The sound of the shot filtered away, replaced by the surf.

Tank holstered the SIG and stepped over to Kathy. “You OK?”

“Tank.”

“I didn’t see any other way. If those guys on the boat made it to the beach we’d be outnumbered. Then I figured you might run for the boat. If you did Big Bob would try to stop you and it would all go to shit. I had to come early to scare them off.”

Kathy rocked slowly, her legs drawn up and her knees under her chin. She stared off across the water. “I get it. It’s OK.”

“Well, kind of.” Tank unclipped the 2-way from his belt and thumbed down the talk button. “Annuska?”

His 2-way crackled in his ear. “Yes?”

“I’ve got Kathy. Wait at the car. Watch for one guy coming out. Tall guy.”

“I see him already. He take car.”

“OK. Give us 15 minutes.”

Tank placed the 2-way on the duffel next to the tall man’s automatic, unclipped his holster and SIG and added them to the duffel. He stepped over to Big Bob, lifted his feet and clamped them in the crook of his right arm. He leaned forward, straining, until Big Bob’s mass shifted on the pebbles. Tank staggered toward the ocean, the downward pitch of the beach helping him. A few more panting steps and the surf thumped his shins, then his knees. Big Bob sank to the sea floor, each incoming wave lifting him slightly. Tank caught the rhythm and heaved as each wave lifted the body, until he had managed ten more yards into the bay. When he could feel the suck of the outgoing tide he worked Big Bob’s body in front of him and pushed. Let go. Then he stood with his face to the sky, hands on hips, gasping for air, his back and legs aching.

When he stumbled out of the surf Kathy was still sitting where he had left her. Tank crossed to the duffel and reattached his SIG to his belt, his breathing easier. He unzipped the bag and looked inside. Cash, all in $10,000 bundles.

“$300,000,” said Kathy, as if she was sleep talking.

“OK, we need to move. The body may come back to the beach on the next tide.”

She nodded. Tank dropped the tall guy’s pistol and the 2-way into the bag and zipped up. He helped Kathy to her feet. She leaned on him, then switched to his right side, her left arm over his shoulders.

“You’re doing better than earlier today.”

“A little.” Her voice rasped near his ear. “I can’t believe I fell for it. I never take a drink from a guy. I dumped the drink he gave me down the sink. Then I poured a new glass, but he’d put the roofie in the wine bottle.”

“Happens.”

As they approached the tree line the back of Tank’s neck tingled and he felt for his SIG, but Kathy jammed her free hand over the butt. Annuska stepped from the tree line pointing a small black automatic at Tank’s stomach.

“Annuska?” Tank struggled to get her name out.

Annuska’s eyes searched his face. “I am sorry, Tank. But I am here to help Kathy. It is this way.”

Kathy unclipped his holster and stepped away. “Tank, I need the duffel.”  Something bitter rose in Tank’s throat and he loosened his grip so she could tug it from his hand. He watched her as she stepped away.

“Nice job. Again you get the money.”

Kathy stepped next to Annuska and pointed his SIG at him.

“Knees, Tank.”

“Go to hell. Shoot me standing for Christ sakes.” The tiredness rushed back into him and it was all he could do not to break eye contact with her.

Kathy stared at him, silent. Finally she motioned to a tree. “Sit with your back to that. Arms back around the trunk.”

He didn’t care any more. He sank down with his back to the tree and put his arms behind the tree. Annuska stood in front of him with her small automatic. Kathy bound his wrists and then circled to Annuska. They took each other in their arms and kissed, lips to lips. Tank watched, the ocean breeze cooling his face.

They broke apart and stared into each others eyes. Kathy cupped Annuska’s face with her hand. “God,” she whispered. “Two months without you.”

“This is too long.”

“Way too long.” They gazed at each other deeply for a few seconds, then Kathy pulled herself away and squatted in front of Tank. A small smile played over her face.

“I bet you have questions.”

Tank couldn’t help himself. He smiled. “Yeah. I don’t usually get played like this. Not on that many levels. But tonight could have gone a lot of ways. I might not even have showed up.”

“That’s what Annuska was for. To prime you to go after Big Bob. And I know you. You feel you owe me. You’d want to make that right. And if you didn’t show, Annuska would be here.”

She stopped talking a moment and watched him. Her hair blew across her face and she tugged it behind her ears.

“Look, Tank. You have me wrong. That night in Pittsburgh when I left, when my brother shot Dom and took the money? Do you even know why?”

“Because you’d set them up. That was your plan.” The moonlight found lines around her eyes and Tank was surprised at how tired she looked. But there was something else as well. A confidence he’d never seen before.

“Not so simple.” She closed her eyes and opened them. “This is the part you don’t know. I have a kid sister. She worked in one of Dom’s strip clubs. Dom decided he liked her but my sister didn’t think the same way. So Dom took her partying, gave her all the drugs she wanted, and two months later she’s sleeping with Dom to get her next fix. When she was too far gone he kicked her out. That’s what started it. My brother, Donny, he just wanted to kill Dom, but I wanted money for my sister’s detox. So we made a plan.”

Tank grew aware of the shush and pull of the waves. He thought about her words for a moment. “You slept with Dom for three months to set that up? How does someone do that?”

“Love. Hate. I love my sister, I hate Dom. You pick. Maybe both. It bothers you I can do that, doesn’t it?” The wind lifted the tree branches and moved Kathy’s hair about her face again. “It’s my body, Tank. Just because you have some old-fashioned need to protect it, or protect women, that doesn’t give you ownership rights.”

Tank looked at the pebbles of the beach and back at her.

“Now you’ve got me wrong. If you want to use your body that way it’s up to you, because you’re using it for something. You made a choice. I’m OK with that.” He was out of breath, as if all the choices he had made were played out. The wasted years in Iraq, the exhausting disgust of protecting Dom, a guy who took whatever he wanted and misused every woman he met. The two years running the restaurant, which he now knew was more about getting away than starting fresh.

Kathy and Annuska glanced at one another.

“Tank.” It was Annuska. “We do not shoot you. You are good guy here.”

Tank shook his head slowly, watching Kathy. “Kathy might think differently about that.” He waited. Kathy was silent, watching him, a strand of hair loose and swinging in the breeze.

“Tell me about it.”

Tank knew what she was asking. He realized he had been waiting for her to ask that question for more than two years. “Your brother?”

“Yes. Donny.” Her voice was sarcastic, but she softened it. “My brother. The guy you shot.”

“There isn’t much to tell.” Tank saw Annuska shift her weight and look at Kathy, her eyes wide. She didn’t know. “It was a couple of months after you left. But then you know that.” He met her eyes.

“Christmas eve.”

“Christmas Eve. Big money night, all of Dom’s places hopping. Dom and I finished the last collection and headed to the car. We had about half a block to walk. Your brother came out of an alley shooting.”

The force of the memory dried up Tank’s words. Annuska was staring at him, a sadness in her eyes he hadn’t seen before.

“And?” Kathy watched his face. “I want every detail, Tank.”

Tank closed his eyes and he was there again, the half lit sidewalk, the freezing wind from the Monongahela River burning his face. “The alley was to my right. When your brother stepped out Dom didn’t stay behind me like he’s supposed to. He ran to the left, I guess for cover between the parked cars. Your brother tracked on him, shooting. That let me get a couple of shots off. He was right in front of me.” He opened his eyes. “That was it.”

The wind weaved among the three of them, the night suddenly small.

Kathy still studied him, her face thoughtful. “I told Donny not to do it. I told him you were too good. But tell me something. How would you have done it, if you were Donny?”

It was an odd question and Tank had the feeling of something more, as if Kathy was headed toward something. “I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it.” A warm wind touched Tank’s face, almost a relief. “He came from my right, which meant he crossed my line of fire. I guess if it was me I would have come from behind. You get closer that way. But it would be tough on a street like that. Or I’d have stepped out of the alley and taken me right away. Then gone after Dom.” Tank looked at Kathy. “That’s it. He tracked on Dom and left himself standing there, right in my line of fire. I didn’t even have to change stance. If he came from the alley he had to take both of us. Me first, then after that Dom is a cake walk. That’s what I would have done.”

“Exactly.” Kathy’s voice was steady. “Like tonight. You timed your walk so the boat engine covered the sound of your steps. And you angled in so Big Bob’s body hid you from that tall guy. That way you could pick them off one at a time. You were technical about it.”

There was a smile on Kathy’s lips Tank didn’t understand. She looked away and then back at him.

“Tank, I loved my brother. I still do. But he couldn’t control his anger, just like our father. He could never stick to a plan. He made his choice, died, and it was horrible. To me it felt like it was the end of everything. But it wasn’t, the world just kept moving along. It was different, the world was something else without him, but it just kept moving. And here I am.”

Kathy tugged over the duffel and unzipped it. She dropped three bundles of bills at his feet. “Annuska and I are taking your car. You should be able to loosen the ropes, they aren’t tight. We’ll be taking the ferry back to St. Thomas tomorrow morning at 9.”  She nodded to the three bundles of cash. “Two of those are for helping me tonight. The other is an advance.”

“For what?”

“I’ve been putting together deals. None of the Miami guys do anything by internet or cell any more. Everything’s old school. So they need someone to broker the deals. That’s me. But I need backup. Annuska can do some of it, but I really need you. Those technicals we just talked about? My brother didn’t think that way. He couldn’t prioritize or wait out the small steps to get the big prize. And he certainly couldn’t do it on the fly.” The wind pulled her hair from behind her ears and she strung it back again, her eyes dark. “I need someone who can do that.”

She leaned closer to him.

“Ask yourself what you’re doing here, Tank. Everything you ran from, the world has moved on. It’s something else now. The only thing that’s stayed the same are your skills. I bet you even felt good tonight, using them. Like it was a relief. I set this up with Big Bob to see if you still had it. Big Bob was small time, he couldn’t move the weight we need. But think about it. We don’t smuggle the shit and we don’t handle the cash. We just broker the deals and back each other up. Take a good cut. We do three years tops and then we’re done because I bet by then the world will have moved on.” She studied him. “Tell me you’ll think about it, because you’re the right guy for the job.”

Tank stared back. He couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I know, not what you were expecting. But you can’t hide in that diner forever. Trust your instincts. Meet us on the ferry at 9.”

Annuska stepped over to him, bent down and kissed him on the forehead. “You are good man, Tank. I am sorry for tricking you. I know we make good team. Better than hamburgers.”

Annuska joined Kathy and they stood looking down at him for a moment, then Kathy took Annuska’s hand and they moved together into the woods.

Tank stared at the stars, the quarter moon and the surf. Before long he heard the Cube pass by. Finally, carefully, he tested the rope binding his wrists. As Kathy had promised, it was loose. It took him only a few minutes work his hands free. He stood, collected the rope and cash and stuffed them into his pockets. Filtered back through the woods to the water battery.

Ten minutes later he settled into one of the gun ports, staring at the bay. Somewhere the current was rolling Big Bob back and forth along the sandy bottom. The sky was cloudless and thousands of stars stared down, the moonlight dancing over the swells. It was beautiful, perfect; almost painfully so. He couldn’t understand how he had never noticed it before. He wiped his eyes, breathing carefully, the wind gentle on his face.

He woke to the milky light of predawn, stood and worked his muscles. He felt rested and aware, and for the first time in two years, alive.

No sign of Big Bob on the beach. He could live with that.

As he walked to the main road he worked out the technicals in his head. A cab back to Cruz Bay would deliver him to his restaurant before opening time. And that would be just enough time to shower, collect some things, put a closed sign on the door and buy a ticket for the 9 A.M. ferry.

END

 

Peter W. J. Hayes is a former journalist, advertising copywriter and marketing executive. His work has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, Shotgun Honey, Yellow Mama, and Out of the Gutter. In 2015 he won the Pennwriter Short Story Contest.

One Comment:

  1. I was surprised to read this story by Mr. Hayes because I met the Tank and Kathy characters last week in another Hayes story published this time in the Sept. 2017 issue of Mystery Weekly. This has never happened to me before. Like “Starting Over,” the current story here, “The Silver .38” is well-plotted and well-written with a pace that doesn’t quit till the end. I don’t expect to but wish I could stumble into another story about them as I did here. Maybe I’ll have to check the other magazines listed in his author bio. If I don’t find them again, at least I’ll be treated to more of Hayes’s good writing.

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