Paying the Vig

The Ball and Bean wasn’t open. A small group of old men milled around on the sidewalk outside.

We’d dropped off Flattop a couple blocks earlier in front of a non-descript house and he’d disappeared inside with some vague promises of seeing us later after he slept some more.

Pargo left us at the front gate of Hondo’s shop and drove off without a word. He was in a hurry.

“Damn it, I need that coffee,” I said.

Hondo shrugged. “I’m just going to have a nap on the couch. Don’t need no coffee when you’re sleeping.”

That sounded good, but there was no sleep for me for at least a while.

He slid the gate wide open after unlocking the giant padlock securing it and gestured that I should come inside. The Comet I’d stolen—my Comet—still squatted just inside the yard.

“Right, I gotta scrub this for you, too,” Hondo said. “You sure you want this thing? It’s like a Mustang for people that couldn’t afford one. Not fast, not beautiful and doesn’t even handle well.”

I felt a bit offended, for some reason. Sure, it was just a car and not a particularly nice one. It was my car though. The first one I could ever conceivably call my own. I was going to keep it. Maybe one day it would have a place of honor in my massive garage full of exotics with a plaque: “First Car I Ever Stole.”

“I’ll keep it,” I replied simply. “Maybe you can make sure it’s in decent shape mechanically, too?”

“Sure thing, Homes. These cars are basically tanks, though. It’s real hard to kill them.”

That was good to hear. It probably sucked pretty hard when your getaway car broke down. Not that I planned to need one anytime soon.

Hondo unlocked the shop and slid the big doors open. The Jaguar was still there under its tarp, but the Volkswagen had disappeared. The LSS had made use of every part of the kill.

My stomach was still growling in protest at the lack of food and coffee, but with the cafe closed it’d have to wait. I’d try to be productive.

“Can I use your phone?” I asked.

“Mi casa, su casa, Homes,” Hondo said and disappeared into the shop.

“Thanks, man.”

I needed to get a message to Brass Lee. I doubted the Brass Dragon Tong was listed in the phone book. The one thing I didn’t want was some kind of late fee, or Lee sending the turtle brothers by to break my legs or whatever. It was too late to call Manny. He’d be gone to school already. I’d have to try to contact Lee without his help for now.

I picked up the phone and dialed 411. A bored sounding lady answered.

“What name?”

“Sammy’s Super Shoes” I replied.

“What city?”

“Glendora, California.”

There was a pause, and I suddenly wondered what was happening. Without a computer, how was she finding the number? Did she have a phone book in front of her? Was she an expert in phone book usage? Or was this some kind of skill. Did she have the “Directory Assistant” job. I didn’t have a chance to ask before she came back.

“The number is 626 963 2710.”

“Shit, hold on,” I said as I looked around for something to write it down.

“On the back of door!” Hondo yelled.

A clipboard with some paper clipped to it and a pen on a string. Perfect. The lady wearily repeated the number and this time I wrote it down, thanked her and hung up. No wonder in my old world software did that job. It had to be totally mind-numbing.

Hondo started up the Comet and drove it past me into the shop, slowly easing it onto the hydraulic lift. When it was in position he killed the engine and stepped out. The sweet smell of gasoline wafted up and then drifted away.

“Gas in the exhaust. She’s running too rich,” Hondo muttered and reached inside the car to pop the Comet’s hood.

As interested as I was, I turned my attention back to the phone and dialed Sammy’s. After a couple of rings, a woman answered.

“Sammy’s Super Shoes, where the deals are always super. How can I help you?”

I couldn’t tell if it was the same woman I’d met, but there was a definite Chinese accent.

“Hi, I need to get in touch with Lee. I’ve got some money for him.”

There was a definite pause. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no one named Lee here. Maybe you have the wrong number?”

“I don’t. Brass Lee. My name is Mack, and I need to pay him today.”

“Again, I’m sorry, sir. There’s no one here by that name. Is that all I can help you with today?”

I sensed a hangup was imminent, so I spoke quickly. “Hold on. Let me give you my number. If you happen to see Lee, Leo or Raph you pass it on.”

Another pause. “What’s the number, sir?”

Shit, what was the number?

I put the phone to my chest to mute the microphone and shouted. “Hondo, what’s the number here?”

“On the phone,” he yelled back, hidden by the long, open hood of the Comet.

Sure enough, there it was. Printed on a little label in a clear plastic recess was a phone number with area code. I read it to her digit by digit.

“Have a good day, sir,” she said, and hung up.

I could only hope that would do it. Short of going to see Manny at school I had no other way I could think of to get Brass Lee’s contact information. Maybe Big El could hook me up, but I already owed him.

Hondo was elbows-deep in the engine of my Comet, muttering to himself. I hovered nearby watching as I waited for the phone to ring.

“How does it look?” I asked.

He started as I broke his flow. “Oh it’s fine. A little unloved, but nothing major. A bit of oil leakage, a bit of coolant leakage. Air filter is dirty, oil filter is dirty. I’ll have her running good in an hour or two. She’s never going to be fast, though.”

He continued to work and I tried not to disturb him. Ten minutes later the Ball and Bean still hadn’t opened, but the phone rang. I picked it up.

“Hello,” I said.

“Is this Mack?” a familiar voice asked.

“Yeah. Leo?”

“You got it. Where are you? I need to come by and collect the vig. I was expecting Manny to call me last night, but he didn’t. Everything alright over there?”

“Things are good,” I said. I was distracted for a bit when I saw Guillem walk up to the front door of the Ball and Bean and begin to open up.

“Come on, Mack,” Leo prompted as I trailed off. “Don’t waste my time. I’ve got other shit to do today. Where are you?”

“Yeah, sorry. You know Lyle Street in Compton?”

He didn’t, but I gave him the address and he agreed to meet me at the Ball and Bean in an hour.

I hung up the phone and as soon as Guillem had finished setting up his tables I crossed the street and claimed one. Hondo begged off, saying he’d come by for something later once he was ready.

Guillem nodded at me and without taking my order served me coffee and some food five minutes later. I was a little surprised when I saw that I was the first one he served. Did he somehow know I’d joined the Soldados?

I drank my coffee and ate my tortilla in quiet solitude. Through the open gate and doors I could see Hondo working on my new car. I had idle thoughts of getting it painted properly and souping it up. Maybe it’d never be as fast as the Mercedes, but I was sure it could be a lot faster. Did I need a fast car? No, of course not. Still, it had some appeal. Maybe after we’d sold some of this weed and the sword hanging over our head—the Cartel—was feeling a bit less imminent.

After a few days wearing sunglasses, it felt odd to be out in the sunshine without them. I felt a little exposed, but not afraid. If there were any snitches nearby trying to sell me out, they wouldn’t find anyone to answer on the Hip side.

My mind drifted and I’d almost fallen asleep in the sun when something woke me up. A strange sensation, it made the hairs on my neck stand up. I looked up to see Leo standing ten feet away, looking me over with an odd expression. Had I felt him IDing me?

“Mack, I can see things have changed since we last met.”

My brain was still a bit foggy and I had no idea what he was talking about. How did I look different? I was wearing the same low-key clothes I normally did. The bandage on my face, maybe?

In any case, I stood up and extended my right hand. “Hey, Leo.”

He shook it firmly, his expression a bit amused.

“Victorious, huh? We’re not usually so friendly with our debtors, but I guess-” he started to say and then stopped as he looked at my waist.

“Holy shit, I know that belt buckle.”

The silver skull was glinting in the sun, the red eyes shining.

I just smiled back.

“You took out the Hip,” he said in a low voice.