Keep a clear a head, remember who you are and why they are. I can’t get sucked in again, I just can’t! An intense thrumming bounced around Ray’s cranium, he thought maybe the butterflies had moved up from his stomach. He’d been to Tony’s place before, but this was different. The back room was the inner sanctum, the place where the cities’ most powerful criminals would meet to discuss plans, news, and anything they wouldn’t want the police to hear. Often gangsters waited years to get an invite, sometimes even decades; but Carlo insisted his most trusted aide would be welcomed. Good thing too, Ray had a chance to wipe the slate clean now. It wasn’t that risky, he told himself, I just need to stay calm.
‘Meet me at the bar,’ Carlo had said, ‘and don‘t act so nervous.’
It was dark, the year was getting old and time was running out; Ray needed something. His boots skipped across the frost; clouds of vapour escaped from his coat; he glanced up to confirm he had stopped at the right Neon sign. Ray grumbled when he saw ‘Tony’s Place’ shining back at him but swallowed hard as he approached.
Tony’s Place was old, it looked as if it belonged to another place and time. That was part of its charm; it offered a level of escapism alcohol alone couldn’t match. It was busy on cold nights; it was a place where long and darkening evenings could pass in an instant. Ray wondered how many people knew who the owner was, and how many knew of the people he would greet in the smoky back room. It didn’t seem like somewhere hardened criminals would meet; it was too bright, too clean, and Ray had said as much to Carlo the last time he was in Tony’s Place a few nights ago.
‘I guess that’s the point,’ said Carlo, ‘besides, it’s tradition, meetings have been at Tony’s for over a century, some of the old guys probably haven’t been out anywhere else for 40 years! And they probably wouldn’t even go there if Phelan didn’t run it.’
On such a cold night entering the warmth of the bar should be a welcome relief, thought Ray, struggling to get his bearings when his glasses steamed up. As he removed the thick lenses to wipe off the condensation he stumbled into a bar stool, and the customer who was sitting on it.
‘Hey, watch where you’re going! Are you gonna pay for those drinks?’
Ray sighed. Tony’s was always hot, always crowded, ‘Yeah, sure. It was my fault; I’ll have them sent over. Sorry about that.’
Just then Carlo appeared, ‘come on Ray, you don’t wanna keep these guys waiting!’ Carlo grabbed Ray by the elbow and pulled him away from the table, whispering into his ear, ‘were you gonna buy those fellas some drinks?’
‘It’s only fair. It was my fault, I stumbled into them.’
‘I don’t care whose fault it was; you can’t take that kind of crap from nobody no more! If you wanna be a gangster, you gotta act like a gangster. And I thought I told you to get rid of those glasses, they don’t fit with the image. Why don’t you try contact lenses?’
‘Hey! I don’t like lenses; they make eyes’ hot and don’t fit right. Besides the glasses kinda fit with Ray; like x-Ray specs, and Ray-Ban.’
‘I’m not going to start to wear contact lenses just because they would make me look tougher, I’ll just be tougher!’
‘Well, it’s your business; I think you otta give them another go. I just got to see to something out front, why don’t you go through there and have a seat at the table?’
A seat at the table, Ray had worked hard for this, but he was still nervous. Once he walked through that door, like it or not, he was fully committed.
‘Ok, Carlo! You wanna sit so we can get this meeting started?’
He took the seat beside Ray. Carlo didn’t hurry, seeming to enjoy greeting the bosses Ray struggled to meet in the eye. People talked in hushed tones about an informant, aware it was likely someone in the room; never in his life had Ray felt so close to danger. When Carlo arrived at his station the meeting started and his demeanour changed in an instant. Throughout Carlo was silent, eyes flitting left and right, soaking up any information passed on by these veteran criminals.
‘You can learn more here than in prison,’ joked Ray. He nudged Carlo but got no reaction.
The meeting lasted for hours; the once heaving bar was littered with only a smattering of dedicated patrons when they started to filter out of the back room. Ray was happy to be sitting alone at the rich mahogany counter, watching his reflection in the mirror behind the bewildering assortment of bottles, rare and expensive standing side by side with ubiquitous and cheap. He took another pull of the whiskey from its glass, sucking his lips as the cheap amber liquid burned his throat before settling in the pit of his stomach.
‘Where did you get to? Hang back at the end of these meetings, you never know who might need something.’
‘Sorry Carlo, I needed a break from all those new faces.’
‘I understand, but you don’t wanna waste an opportunity like this again…Hey!’ The barman looked up from polishing a glass,’ Jameson’s neat, and the same for my friend.’
‘Okay, I need to order another drink anyway.’
‘Hey, are those your friends over there? The ones whose drinks you paid for, for no reason?’
‘Yeah, I’ve been watching their reflection in the mirror.’ They hadn’t moved from their seats by the door, but now they looked so drunk they might slide off their bar stools. There was five of them, older guys who revealed missing teeth when they laughed. Ray guessed they probably wouldn’t back down from a fight. ‘And I didn’t buy them any drinks! I said I would, but then I changed my mind. The guy I knocked into is coming over, the bald guy with the purple beard, maybe you wanna stick around for a while?’
‘No problem, let me handle this.’
‘You’re one of the good guys,’ said Ray, raising a glass to Carlo.
‘Okay, sure,’ he replied, laughing nervously.
Then Ray felt a tap on the shoulder, ‘do you remember the drinks you offered to buy for me and my buddies?’
Before Ray could reply Carlo answered, ‘you got a lot of nerve coming up to my friend like this. You really don’t look like you need the drinks, so why don’t you just walk away and put it down to experience?’
‘Normally we would let it slide, but your friend did offer, and I’d hate to make a liar out of him.’
The guy just gave Ray the opportunity he’d been waiting for. ‘What did you just say?’ Ray growled, and then smashed a glass into the side of the man’s head.
‘That’s what you get for starting trouble with us,’ sneered Carlo. The man stumbled before he hit the floor, hitting his head off a barstool as he fell. Suddenly his body went limp, a ragdoll lying on the ground.
‘Holy shit, Ray,’ declared Carlo, ‘what did you do? Phelan ain’t gonna be too pleased about this kinda trouble in his bar.’
For a moment Ray and Carlo stared at the lifeless body. ‘You gotta help me get outta this, Phelan won’t be pleased with you either.’
‘How you figure?’
‘Phelan’s gonna look at the guy who brought me in, and I don’t think you want him to look too closely.’
A small pool of blood was oozing from the man’s temple onto the grey tiles of the barroom floor. His friends seemed pinned to the puce padding of the bench they occupied, also unable to comprehend what had happened. Time seemed to stop dead, all the bodies in the bar seemed frozen.
‘Okay, but you owe me big. Lemme go outside and make some calls.’
Tony’s place was empty in a few minutes, then Carlo locked the door. The staff had gone home when two men arrived to carry away the body; Ray was soon on his hands and knees cleaning up the bloodstain.
‘Good job,’ said Carlo, moving behind the bar, ‘I think we deserve a little drink, don’t you?’
Ray’s head was buzzing, the butterflies were trying to escape his cranium again, but for a vastly different reason. It took a few seconds for him to register where he was. The carpet was sticky – he might have moved a few inches if he wasn’t surrounded by trash and ominous stains. He began to recognise the beige cupboard doors, the brown countertops littered with glass bottles and cans.
‘Carlo really needs to move out of this dump.’ Ray groaned and shifted his head to stare at the ceiling. Satisfied he knew where he was, Ray closed his eyes, the butterflies seemed to calm a little when he did that, and tried to remember why he was on Carlo’s living room floor.
He soon dozed off again, his dreams filled with images of the night before. Something happened in Tony’s, everyone cheered, and then…It was all blur, but he felt a pang of guilt, and not just the normal hangover guilt. This was something important.
Ray fell into a black, dreamless sleep. He was awoken by the door hinges creaking, the slamming of the door as it closed, the sound of footsteps shuffling across the carpet.
‘Your glasses have seen better days’, said Carlo, handing Ray the mangled frames he found on the floor, ‘I said you should try contacts.’
‘Thanks, but blurred vision makes the hangover less intense.’
‘Will I make us both some coffee?’
‘Thanks. Say, what happened last night?’
‘You don’t remember? After all I did for you? You laid out some guy in Tony’s Place and I had to help you clean it up. But don’t worry, I won’t forget.’
‘It’s all coming back to me…How much does Phelan know?’
‘Not much, you lucky SOB. But I wouldn’t go to Tony’s Place for a while.’
Damn, thought Ray, I didn’t think I’d mess up the operation like this!
Ray had to make a phone call.
‘Hey, Mel, it’s R.C., I think we should meet. How about the yard?’
‘Um…yeah. I can be there about 12.30.’
‘That’ll work. I’ll make sure I’m not followed.’
Ray stepped out of the car slowly and deliberately, looking back and forth so many times it made him a little dizzy, making sure the road was quiet before he emerged. On these warm, cloudy days the city’s electricity was trapped close to the ground. The sticky air was heavy, it leaned on Ray, but like a boxer in the final round he didn’t have the energy to push his opponent away.
But it wasn’t just the weather; he suspected he knew where the extra pressure came from, but he couldn’t see any other way. To confess everything, that would be too much. Ray looked around the building site filled with clear plastic sheets and rows of concrete blocks among the rubble and pieces of odd timber. And then he saw Mel’s car. The car looked very ordinary, a metallic blue sedan; to try and blend in.
It was the personal touches that made Ray smile when he saw it. Mel had a sticker on her bumper, ‘if you can read this, you’re too close’, and a ‘my other car is impounded’ tag. Ray shuffled along a gang way and entered the main building, carefully dropping onto the blocks on the other side. It was even hotter than outside; baking concrete reflected any sunlight that penetrated through the clouds, the heavy air settled in the enclosed spaces. He could feel the sweat beginning to burst through every pore.
Imelda strolled down a spartan corridor, lifting a sheet of plastic into a room, finding Ray inside. The room was bare, not even plaster on the walls; Ray ran his finger down the rough concrete holding the blocks together. He yelped as the concrete broke through his skin, raising his right index finger to his lips to suck away that little sport of blood that was forming on his fingertip. He spun round when he heard footsteps; his eyes focused on Mel.
‘Jesus! You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that! You don’t know what I could have done there!’
‘Take it easy Ray! I hope you’re less twitchy today on the job. Why did you want to meet? It’s only been a week since we last talked. Do the gang trust you enough yet? Are you sure you weren’t followed?’ Mel walked over to the glassless window, confirming there were still only two cars on the site.
‘I’m getting there! It’ll take time for the old guys to get used to my face,’ said Ray
‘How much more time do you need?’
‘Get off my case, will you? I got something for you, but there’s a problem we need to take care of first.’
‘Don’t tell me you saw some guy buying an ounce of heroin; give the bosses something big if you want to save your career.’
‘How about murder?’
Ray paced up and down against the back wall of the room, and then sat on the side of what would be a panoramic corner window, ‘this’ll be a great office when it’s finished,’ he said, surveying the streets and the crossroads below, ‘probably for some management type. Are you sure you weren’t followed?’
‘Yes, of course. It took me four times as long to get here, I doubled back on myself so many times. We’re miles away from their patch anyway; if they were going to follow anyone it would be you, you’re right in the thick of it. I had to come all the way overhere on my lunch break, so quit playin’ around and tell me something’
‘OK, OK.’ Said Ray, tapping his fingers on the wall and looking out the window, ‘You remember Carlo?’
‘Carlo Siva? I’ve been meaning to talk to you about’
‘We had a meeting with the head guys last night, maybe he was keyed up about that.’
‘This meeting was in Tony’s?’ Mel took out a notepad and began scribbling.
‘The place was busy, and it was a cold night, my glasses steamed…so I knocked into a few people.’
Mel sighed, ‘again? You got to be more careful. Tell more about the meeting?’
‘I didn’t learn anything, but that’s not important. The guy I ran into was at the bar; we had a few words, then Carlo comes over and hits the guy with a glass.’
‘I know, it was crazy! Carlo mumbled something about having a reputation to protect. And he blamed me, saying I didn’t take care of business. I thought I should tell you before you heard something different.’
‘Great! A murder is definitely something we can work with. What did you think the problem would be?’
‘I thought being a witness could be a problem, with me being undercover and everything.’
‘I can’t see how. Are you sure you didn’t have another problem?’
‘Well, spilling the drinks; I hope that doesn’t get it out.’
Ray got back to his apartment. The cold water he splashed of his face made him feel a little better, but he still couldn’t look at himself in the mirror. As he dabbed his face with a towel his phone rang.
‘Hey, it’s me.’ His voice sounded tired hoarser than normal, but Ray knew only one middle aged man who would expect Ray to be able to identify his voice immediately.
‘Carlo, I was hoping to hear from you,’ Ray lied.
‘That’s good, cos I need your help buddy. I’ve been arrested, can you meet me at the station?’
‘You’ve been arrested, and I was your one phone call? I’m touched.’
‘Well don’t get a big head about it! Just meet me down at the station and I’ll explain what’s going on.’
‘Okay, no problem; I’m leaving right now.’
‘You know Carlo’s not such a bad guy, not as arrogant as the rest of them. We should do something for him.’ Ray knew the sergeant, so he chatted briefly with him as they entered the interview room. The sergeant directed him to take a seat on the other side of the desk, then Mel entered the room. Her face was like stone, she fixed Ray with an icy stare.
‘How did you get here so fast?’ He said, ‘the sarg didn’t even have time to make a phone call!’
‘All the things you’ve done to try and get ahead, a move like this shouldn’t surprise me. I got a message from a PD detective as soon as I got back from lunch.’
‘Yeah. One of his CIs phoned him in a panic, said he was witness to a murder; he thought the murderer was an undercover cop. Can you guess who this CI was?’
Ray swallowed hard, ‘I think I have no idea.’
‘How long did it think it would take us to find out? You’ve really done it this time; I don’t think you’ve any friends left. You say you have changed, then you pull something like this! Well, I’ve had enough, this time you’re on your own.’
‘I’m just starting to make real progress here. You wanna throw all that away?’
‘You’ve already thrown it away! We can’t rely on anything you say anymore.’
‘But I’ve been a cop for 9 years, you need more than the say-so of a criminal.’
‘Did you know that Phelan has a CCTV camera in his office, got some good footage of you…’
Ray laughed, ‘There’s no way that Phelan would hand that to the cops.’
‘No, but he has given the footage to Carlo; it has helped to catch the rat. Carlo shows how useful he is, Phelan takes care of a leak, we get closer to the info we need. This good for everybody, except you.’
‘So when did you decide to drop me.’
Mel shook her head and laughed, ‘you should’ve resigned when you messed up the last operation! We just gave you on new job, you were bound to mess up eventually. Carlos has been working as a CI for a while; when he said people were starting to get suspicious, we just sent you in. And then you just did the rest. In a way you did your job perfectly! Phelan thinks he has solved his problems but they’ve only just started.’
Ciaran J. McLarnon is a writer from Northern Ireland. He has had several pieces published, including in the June 2020 issue of this magazine. More of his writing can be found at ciaranjmclarnon.blog