By Tod Goldberg
Two weeks out of Joliet, Peaches Pocotillo got a job delivering lost baggage for an outfit working O’Hare called Allied Baggage. This was back when you could still get a job at an airport with a prison record. He’d done a year for assault after he put a guy’s head through a TV. Wasn’t the worst he’d ever done. Wasn’t the worst he’d ever do.
First month or so on the crew, Peaches just did the work. He had to. His parole officer wanted to see him with a straight job for a few months, at least, no hanging with known accomplices, which meant he had to punch a clock. Peaches didn’t mind. He had a plan for his life. This was good job experience.
Normal shift, he’d load up a company van and start making his rounds out to the neighborhoods—Wicker Park, Roscoe Village, Boystown, all those—and then to the big hotels on the Loop. The company had a contract with United, but O’Hare being the hub for half the airlines in the world, they’d pick up loose ends for many of the domestic carriers. Where they made their cheddar was on the international flights. You get a bunch of pissed off foriegn tourists without any underwear, they’ll pay anything to get their shit morning, noon, or night. Which was how Peaches thought it was two nights after Christmas, when he got the call to come in at 2:00 a.m.
“You’re using your own car tonight,” MaryAnn told him when he pulled up. She stood out in front of the company warehouse, three blocks north of the airport. “We’re off the books. Client didn’t want to wait until morning for his stuff, so we’re doing a favor. I can give you twenty-five cents a mile.”
“If it’s a favor,” Peaches said, “how about fifty?”
“This isn’t a negotiation,” MaryAnn said. She shifted from foot to foot. Snow fell lightly on the blacktop. Peaches spied the suitcases on either side of her. Nice ones. Tumi. Expensive bags meant expensive clothes meant expensive jewelry meant expensive medications and all that. So Peaches, he didn’t say shit until finally MaryAnn said, “Christ. I’ll do thirty-five and no bitching. Pop your trunk.”
Peaches wasn’t down with people seeing inside his trunk, so he said, “Put it in the backseat,” and MaryAnn did. MaryAnn handed him a Post-it with an address all the way out in Batavia, forty-five minutes away. “If I roll up into this neighborhood at three a.m.,” Peaches said, “they’re going to call the cops.”
“They’re on Rome time,” MaryAnn said.
“Which is what?”
“Morning. Like, champagne brunch time.”
“Their neighbors synchronize their watches?” Peaches asked. Peaches liked MaryAnn. She was around fifty, and though her brother Silas owned the business, she was whom everyone dealt with. The company employed maybe ten ex-cons and got some kind of tax dispensation from the state, but fact was MaryAnn also seemed to have a soft spot for guys coming out of prison. Even brought Peaches a bag lunch every day until he got his first paycheck. It was just basic shit. Peanut butter and jelly. A bag of chips. A can of RC Cola. Nice is nice and that was nice. But still. Peaches wasn’t going to have some alarm company’s security patrol run him. That could result in a body.
“It’s fine. They’re expecting you. No one in Batavia has been awake for seven hours.”
“You say so,” Peaches said, “but I get hassled, I’m not responsible for my actions.” He started to put his window up, but MaryAnn grabbed it.
“You have a good Christmas, hon? You get up to see your family?”
“No,” Peaches said.
“No? What’d you do all day?”
“I’d planned to read,” he said, “but then I got busy with a friend who also needed a favor, it turns out.” His idea was that he’d get back to his real estate textbooks over his day off, immerse himself again, get that habit back. He’d taken thirty hours of certification classes at Joliet. Did pretty well. Thought he might like to get his license. Had another sixty hours to go before he could take the test. You wanted to be a real gangster, you learned about property. He learned that playing Monopoly. Free parking wasn’t shit. Owning Boardwalk and Park Place, that was the game.
So he was all set.
Pot of coffee.
Stack of books.
Rudolph getting bullied on the TV.
But instead he got a call from his cousin up in Kenosha about someone who needed to get got, a quick five Gs, so off he went. Peaches had been in the game since he was thirteen, had a good dozen bodies already. Just how it was. So Christmas night, he was chopping up some motherfucker and sprinkling his remains into Chain O’Lakes. Cash was coming down after the New Year, and then maybe he’d enroll in some actual real estate classes. Kaplan had something starting February 1st.
“You’re a good friend,” MaryAnn said. “But listen. You are always responsible for your actions. I’ve met a hundred boys like you. And what you think is important now is not going to seem that way if you’re back in Joliet doing fifty, sixty years. Okay? Someone cares about you. Do you understand that?”
“I get fifty years,” Peaches said, “I’ll be doing them from the grave.”
“Listen,” MaryAnn said. “You come back here after the drop, and I have some green bean casserole in the fridge. You take it home, okay?”
“That’s real nice of you,” Peaches said.
A police cruiser, running its sirens, screamed up the frontage road beside the warehouse. MaryAnn pulled away from Peaches’s car, watched until the cruiser disappeared, and smiled down at Peaches. “So quick like a bunny,” she said, “get it done, okay?”
“This job,” Peaches said, “it’s not something criminal, right? Not a bunch of cocaine in those bags, is there?”
“I wouldn’t do you like that, hon.”
“But don’t mention it to Silas?”
“Just a side hustle,” MaryAnn said and then stared at Peaches for five, ten, fifteen seconds, snow melting in her hair. “Fifty cents a mile, then you come back here tomorrow for your regular shift, and we’re cool, okay? Tomorrow being today already, but you get me?”
Peaches gave it ten minutes, then pulled off the highway when he couldn’t take it anymore. So he parked in front of a 24-hour Jewel’s, where the lighting was good and workers coming off swing shift got their groceries—Chicago, the kind of town where people still worked swing, and no one thought it was weird you’re hanging around a grocery store in a jumpsuit with your name on the chest.
First bag was filled with women’s clothes—a stack of St. John knits, Gucci pencil skirts and slacks, a small Gucci bag, too, a bunch of high-heeled shoes, a pair of black boots—nice, all shit Peaches sort of atavistically knew was expensive. But then Peaches discovered a little pouch covered in fake pearls, unzipped it, and found what he didn’t know he was looking for: Diamond earrings, diamond necklace. Neither were huge carats, but a diamond is a diamond. Tasteful gold hoops. A platinum tennis bracelet with twelve diamonds, and a fucking mint. Well, a junior mint. And then four other bracelets and necklaces, three sets of earrings, all of them pricy.
The whole bag could probably get him ten Gs on the streets. Those diamonds were not a fucking joke. But he wasn’t going back to prison for ten Gs, and anyway, they were worth fifteen times that amount, but who had a hundred fifty K sitting around, waiting for some stolen ice?
So he opened the second bag.
In addition to a couple men’s suits—one blue, one black, and both folded in a way so intricate Peaches didn’t even recognize them as suits at first—and two pairs of shoes, underwear, socks, a couple polo shirts, a green sweater, undershirts, slacks, jeans; there was a combo-locked, hard side pistol case.
Size you’d use for a .357 Magnum.
Peaches picked it up, shook it. No movement. Not that he expected any. There’d be packing inside. Gun might even be in parts.
Peaches checked the airline tags. To and from Rome, just like MaryAnn had said. Five days in between.
You fly to and from a foreign country with a gun, man, you really gotta have a reason for it. Who the fuck was he dealing with? Baggage tags just had the address on them. No names. Maybe it was just some dude who’d done work in Vietnam and never got used to real life again. Peaches had uncles like that. Always strapped. Fear was natural. Meant you were ready if a saber-toothed tiger leapt at you out of the primordial ooze or some shit, but anxiety, which is what made you pack a gun on vacation, that was about something else. That was not believing saber-toothed tigers were extinct.
Or it meant you were the saber-toothed tiger of someone else’s fear.
Peaches put the man’s bag in the trunk, left the other in the backseat. He wasn’t down to cross MaryAnn. She’d done right by him. But these bags told a story, and Peaches saw some possibilities rolling out in front of him. Maybe Peaches would tell the people at the house only one bag had been released, the other was still at the airport, he’d come back in a couple hours with it, if that was okay? There a good time? Get a clock going. That way, he’d know when they might be leaving. Get one of his boys, clean out the whole house, no worries about getting popped in the act, because if you travel with that kind of jewelry, plus a firearm, what do you keep in the house? Plus, he’d have the bag with him on the return. Someone rolled up on him beforehand, he had reason to be back, if anyone asked.
That was good. An actual alibi.
Peaches didn’t believe in robbery as a way of life, strictly speaking. He didn’t think going into a bank with a gun was very smart. Opportunity cost of sticking some fool up for his Rolex was low. But a house in Batavia? A sure thing? These were the kind of people who had homeowners’ insurance. A victimless crime.
Peaches went into Jewel’s, bought a Hostess apple pie, ate it right there in the store. Got his mind right. Made some decisions. Maybe he could put off those real estate classes for a couple months if things unfolded right. He could walk out of this job with a Cadillac, cash, art, jewels. Shit, he could move to Canada if need be, once he was able to travel. Maybe he could buy a house of his own with this score. Yeah, Peaches thought, maybe tonight was going to be okay.
The drop-off was located a few blocks west of the Fox River in a new subdivision called Lockwood Estates. The sign out front advertised three hundred homes starting at 2,500 square feet and $400,000, which was a lot then. Yellow model home flags hung drab off of forty-foot-tall poles, and behind them, blocks of half-constructed skeleton houses, the weather conditions inhospitable for building—someone’s ass was on the line for that fuck-up, but then Peaches turned left at the bottom of Sagebrush Lane and found himself on a fully developed street of red brick, two-story starter mansions, each ringed with dead Christmas lights. Cadillacs and Lincolns and Mercedes and BMWs on the streets and driveways. Bikes and tricycles next to front doors. Nice ones. Not the peeling red paint bikes Peaches rode as a kid. Darkened windows covered by holiday wreathes and midnight snow…save for one house at the end of the block, where the Christmas lights still glowed, and the entire bottom floor was illuminated. He checked the address and his watch.
Three a.m. Right on time.
There was a black Jeep in the driveway, so Peaches parked next to it, got out with the woman’s bag, looked inside: a screwdriver rammed into the ignition, a Styrofoam cup on the dash, steam rising from the coffee, a picture on the passenger seat of a man, fifty-something; a woman, twenty-something; and a small white dog, fluffy-something.
He stepped around the Jeep and up the walk toward the house, glimpsed into the lit windows. A den filled with bookcases, beyond that a kitchen surrounded by what looked like restaurant-grade appliances. Then a guest room, double bed, that fluffy dog sitting on it, door closed. The rooms of other people’s homes were like a dollhouse to Peaches. He had never owned a house like this, had never spent a night in one, either, and it all looked posed…until he looked into the next window and saw the living room.
A man, standing up, back to the window, about Peaches’s height. Six foot. Big, but fit. One eighty-five, two hundred pounds. Leather duster on. The man from the photo sat on a couch. Silver hair. Blue shirt opened at the collar. The standing guy, for some reason, held a lamp in his hand, the cord pulled taut from the wall.
Not what he was expecting.
Everything in the living room looked to be leather. Peaches was thinking, he’d never sat on a real leather couch, just that slippery fake shit, when the man in the duster yanked the light from the wall. And then Peaches heard bap…bap…bap. Glock? Then another bap. Yeah. Glock with a silencer. It wasn’t like how it was in the movies. Silencers make noise. If you know what you’re hearing, it’s impossible not to know what you’re hearing. And Peaches knew.
The rest of the house lights turned off, room by room. Eventually only the Christmas lights were on when the front door opened, and the man in the duster walked out, gun still in his hand. Peaches waited, because if he ran, he’d be fucking dead. In this situation, you just assumed someone running was running to the cops. Least that was Peaches’s point of view. None of that hero shit mattered, either. Some motherfucker is sprinting away from you, you shoot him in the back.
The man said, “Who the fuck are you?”
“Whoever you need me to be,” Peaches said. “You got the gun.”
The man said, “You work for someone?”
“MaryAnn and Silas.”
“The fuck is that?”
Peaches raised the bag up, so the man could see it better. “Allied Baggage.”
“I rep my set,” Peaches said.
“You do what to who?”
“I represent it,” Peaches said.
“And what’s ‘it’?”
“Four Corner Death Warriors.”
“What’s that? A metal band?”
“A gang,” Peaches said. “In Wisconsin.” It’s not like the Death Warriors had Green Bay or Madison in their grip. Mostly, they were about running drugs and protection shit in the farmlands, periodically getting into it with Vice Lords and Gangster Disciples up from Chicago who wanted to move product without local sanction. “But up Joliet, I mostly worked alone.”
“Okay,” the man said, like they’d come to the conclusion of a dispute. “Okay. Piece of advice? Dream Warriors sounds like a metal band.”
“Death Warriors,” Peaches said. “Motherfuckers usually pay respect on it.”
“You one of those guys, screams it out of the car after they shoot someone? ‘Dream Warriors, motherfucker!’ All that?”
“I don’t drive-by,” Peaches said. “That’s pussy shit.”
“But you got homies,” the man said. “They do that?”
“I’ve seen it done,” Peaches admitted.
“See. That’s bad for all of us. You live through the week, stop that shit.” He stepped around Peaches, who was still standing there holding the fucking Tumi bag like he was the help. The man opened the door to the Jeep, then said, “You meet Richard Speck in Joliet?”
“What’s that like?”
“Like seeing George Washington or some shit,” Peaches said. “But he was quiet. Kept to his own.”
“Good advice,” the man said. “Wait fifteen minutes, then call the cops, or everyone at Allied Baggage is dead.”
Peaches waited thirty minutes to call the cops, which gave him enough time to ditch some of the shit in his trunk—guns, saws, rope, tarp, that sort of thing—before coming back to the house to call 911. Just because you were a Good Samaritan didn’t mean cops wouldn’t run you. And sure enough, after the first cops arrived and found the body in the living room, plus the woman tied up in a closet upstairs, unhurt, a Lincoln full of men in suits pulled up, and the suit called Hopper pulled Peaches aside, took his license, then asked him to sit on the curb while he called him in. No cuffs. Nothing like that. An unusual experience in Peaches’s life.
Hopper came back, still holding Peaches’s license. “You’re just out,” he said. “And you walk into this shit. Some luck.”
“No difference between luck and a curse,” Peaches said. “Just depends how you look at it.”
“Really now?” Hopper said. “You know who that guy inside is? The one missing his face?” Peaches shook his head. “Joey the Bishop. That name meaning anything to you?”
“Last twenty-five, thirty years,” Hopper said, “he’s been fixing every college basketball game in the country.”
“How’d he do that?” Peaches asked, interested now.
“Variety of ways,” Hopper said. “Most of the time, kids are happy to brick a couple shots for money. Purdue playing Southern Buttfuck University, who really cares about the score? Miss a couple shots, make sure Purdue wins by ten instead of fifteen, get a G—that makes a difference to a kid with nothing. But that’s just small-fry business. Who really loses, right? Higher up the food chain, say it’s an NCAA tournament game, big action moving. Joey might buy off the top player on both teams. Hit those prop bets with the crazy odds. So it’s not obvious, right? Or when he really needed something good, maybe he’d blackmail a coach. Get photos of him bending over a stripper, or maybe he’s closeted, gets him with his boyfriend, whatever. He needs something, Joey the Bishop, he’s gonna get it. But most of the time, it just boils down to somebody needed money, maybe for a car, maybe for drugs, maybe they just liked having walking-around money. You’re nineteen years old, ten grand may as well be a million dollars. So if you wanted money, Joey had it to offer, provided he got what he needed in return, which was no margin for error.” Hopper paused. “Someone must have made more shots than they were supposed to, so then Joey got his.” He gave Peaches his license back. “You got somewhere out of town you can go? Lay low for a week or two if need be?”
“I’m on parole,” Peaches said.
“I can help with that,” Hopper said.
“How’s a detective gonna help with that?”
“I’m not a detective,” Hopper said. “I’m with the FBI.”
“No shit?” Peaches said. He’d never met an FBI agent before. “I thought you’d be taller.”
“Me, too,” Hopper said. “If this shooter gets caught fast, there’s going to be an assumption that there was a witness. You’ll want to be out of town. Just how it goes with these mob guys.”
“Like Al Capone and shit?”
“Al Capone didn’t own half the police force,” Hopper said. “Your name is going to be on the reports. So what I’m saying, if you saw something, we can pretend you didn’t. Just you and me.”
Back in Joliet, Peaches had met a few of those dudes. Old ones had double-wide cells and their own TVs. Took their meals in their cells half the time. Not that they were infirm. Just how it was. Some trustee would show up with their chow, except it never looked like what Peaches was eating, the talk being they got fed from the staff cafeteria. Joliet was fucked up. But now the fucking guy in the duster made some sense. How he didn’t pop Peaches. How he talked to him like a normal guy. Those Italians guys had a code. All that omertà shit. And you didn’t run around killing innocent people. Peaches, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of innocent, but he wasn’t involved. Dumb way of doing business, in Peaches’s view, even if it had saved his life. Because now, maybe the man in the duster might need to come kill Peaches, regardless.
“It’s what I told the cops,” Peaches said. “I pulled up. Door was open. Dude was missing his face. I called 911.”
“You don’t seem like a call-911 type,” Hopper said.
“Normal situation,” Peaches said, “maybe I wouldn’t.”
“Techs go through the house,” Hopper said, “are they going to find your prints anywhere they shouldn’t be?”
“I didn’t even know the lady was upstairs,” Peaches said. “I saw the man, made the call.”
“So,” Hopper said, “how’d you see the body?”
“I walked in, there he was.”
“You make a habit of walking through open doors into people’s homes,” Hopper said, “and then down the hall, into their living room?”
“Just trying to give good customer service.”
Hopper smiled. “I don’t give a shit about what you’ve done in your previous life,” he said. “You’re about two decades below my pay grade. I just want you to be sure of your story. If I were you? I’d clique up.”
“With who?” Peaches asked. “Michael Corleone?”
“Something bigger than Allied Baggage,” Hopper said. He asked Peaches for his phone number, told him he’d call him straight away if something broke on this, then took out a business card, scrawled something on the back, gave it to Peaches. “You see anything funny, you feel like someone is watching you, whatever, you give me a call. Don’t try to handle it yourself. You’ll end up in a corn field.”
In his life, Peaches had called the cops exactly one time.
About three hours ago now.
He didn’t imagine he’d be doing it a second time. “Don’t be waiting up for that,” Peaches said.
“Ten arrests since you were fourteen. That right?”
“That juvenile shit is sealed,” Peaches said.
Hopper shrugged. “Must be getting old.”
Hopper sat down on the curb next to Peaches. “Can I tell you a funny thing? Off the record? Just two guys in a bar here.” Hopper pointed his index finger like a gun in Peaches’s face. “Joey took one to his face and then there’s two shots into the wall, one in the ceiling. And then he’s got his hands tied in front of his body using a lamp chord, but it’s still attached to the lamp. Isn’t that funny?”
“Off the record? Shooting a person,” Peaches said, “ain’t like what you think it’s gonna be like.”
“True,” Hopper said. “That’s very true. But the guy who did this? I’m gonna guess he was a big bastard in a leather duster,” Hopper pointed his finger gun at the two-story Cape Cod on the corner, “because that’s what the kid across the street saw out his window while he was up jerking off to the Sears catalogue. That guy? That guy is a professional. But he made the shooting look like it was done by someone who didn’t know what he was doing. Like someone who maybe showed up in the middle of the night and saw an opportunity, then panicked. A dupe, basically. A punk.”
Peaches didn’t say anything, but now his mind was working. Had Joey the Bishop called for his bags? Or had the shooter called? Did MaryAnn set him up? One of the other guys in the crew? Peaches had a busy day ahead of him. Maybe a busy week. Could be a busy month.
“We still off the record?” Peaches said eventually.
“You know this guy’s name?”
“Afraid not. But I’ll tell you this. He doesn’t forget a face. He’s got a memory like an elephant. His boys call him The Rain Man. You’d be wise to not go looking for him. Not until you’re cliqued up, anyway. Like with some Navy SEALS.” Hopper stood up then. “If I were you? I’d hold onto my card. Use it as a toothpick if you need to, but don’t lose it.” He began to walk away.
“Hey,” Peaches said, and the FBI agent stopped, looked back down at him. Hopper wasn’t a big guy; Peaches wasn’t joking about that. Little bit of a gut. Nose was crooked, like he should have ducked when he was learning how to box, but instead led with his face. Must be tough to breathe out of it. “Why they call him the Bishop?”
“You never played chess?”
“Not even in Joliet?”
“I like to read,” Peaches said. “Finally had plenty of time.”
“The bishop in chess only moves diagonally, backwards and forwards,” Hopper said. “Plays a crooked game.”
Once the FBI agent had disappeared back into the crowd of cops, EMTs, and neighbors, Peaches took his card out, read what was on the back: “Your Lucky Day! Get Out of Jail Half Off.”
It was after 8 a.m. by the time Peaches got back to Allied Baggage.
The parking lot was empty and the doors to the luggage warehouse were chained and padlocked. Middle of the week, right after Christmas? The place should have been bustling, vans moving in and out. Airlines never worse about losing luggage than when you needed it most. Had MaryAnn called everyone and told them to stay home?
He walked around to the back, where Silas and MaryAnn kept an office in a temporary construction trailer, temporary in this case lasting maybe ten years or so, judging by how the paint had chipped off the aluminum siding. Peaches tried the door. Locked. He knocked, waited. Tried to peer into the window, but the venetian blinds were closed. He knocked again, harder, waited, then just went ahead and kicked the door in.
The office had two desks, two desktop computers with TV-set sized monitors, a fax, a shredder, a small brown sofa that dipped like a V in the middle, probably from Silas’s fat ass, a flimsy coffee table, a mini-fridge, a water cooler, a microwave. No art on the walls, apart from a calendar.
It was the mini-fridge Peaches was interested in.
He popped it open and looked inside. Two cans of RC Cola, a bunch of mustard packets, some soy sauce, that was it.
No green bean casserole to be found.
He sniffed inside, see if he caught a whiff of it, but all he detected was the aroma of the BBQ sauce that was spattered like a gunshot on the back wall.
Peaches sat down behind MaryAnn’s desk, went through the drawers, only found paper clips and balled up old Kleenex. The picture frames on her desk, which used to hold photos of her kids when they were babies, but who were now grown, were empty.
They’d be easy enough to find, when the time came.
Yesterday’s Sun-Times sports page was still open on the center of MaryAnn’s desk, a giant full-page ad for Cupertine Used & Luxury Sedans splayed out next to the basketball scores, a coffee mug on one corner, an inch of coffee on the bottom, like MaryAnn had been in the middle of reading when she got the news and boned out. There was Ronald Cupertine dressed in his trench coat and a fedora, shooting his tommy gun through a credit report, just like in his dumb-ass TV commercials. Peaches thought that if real people had any idea, they wouldn’t play at this shit. Wouldn’t make those movies, write those books, none of that shit. Sure as fuck wouldn’t sell cars with it. Thinking you were a gangster because you ripped some cartoon criminal off for your floormats? Please.
Peaches found a Sharpie and just when he was about to black out Cupertine’s teeth – a thing he’d been doing to that motherfucker in every newspaper he’d seen since he was six years old – something made him stop and really look at the photo. At the face staring back at him. At the shape of his jaw, his nose, the way the trench coat hung off his shoulders.
He wasn’t the Rain Man, was he?
Not…exactly. But close.
Motherfucker, I got you.
Peaches took Hopper’s business card out of his pocket and on his way out of the trailer, slipped it into the shredder, watched it disappear.
Tod Goldberg is the New York Times, national, & international bestselling author of over a dozen books, including the novels Gangster Nation (Counterpoint), The House of Secrets (Grand Central), which he co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer, Gangsterland (Counterpoint), a finalist for the Hammett Prize, Living Dead Girl (Soho Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Fake Liar Cheat (Pocket Books/MTV), and the popular Burn Notice series, including The Fix, The End Game, The Giveaway, The Reformed and The Bad Beat (Penguin), which were named finalists for the Scribe Award on three different occasions. Tod’s short fiction has also been collected in two acclaimed collections, Simplify (OV Books), a 2006 finalist for the SCIBA Award for Fiction and winner of he Other Voices Short Story Collection Prize, and Other Resort Cities (OV Books). His books have also appeared on the USA Today, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, iBooks, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bookscan bestseller lists. Both Gangsterland and Gangster Nation have been finalists for the International Thriller of the Year Award given by VN Magazine in Belgium.