BUY BACK A Crime Novel


     I sat across from Huey LaMouche at one of those little cafe tables, surrounded by one of those little cafes. The French kind, with Lautrec posters and croissants and coffee that makes my belly hurt. It was a sunny Monday morning in Brooklyn, cold and October.
     And Huey says: “Il y a un problčme.
     So I says: “In English, por favor? You grab the goodies or not?”
    Huey wore a pastry apron, checked chef pants, and nervous lips that struggled with each other. He had short white hair and long, furtive eyelashes. His veiny hand stirred a mug of coffee: Tink, tink tink
     “We arrived to the target, Tommy, et tout va bien. Everything was good.” His eyes met mine briefly, those furtive lashes fanning. “As you said, at that hour, the entrance to the museum kitchen was open. With the duct tape, we tie the prep chefs.”
     “Huey?” My big hand stopped his veiny one from stirring the coffee: tink, tink, tk-. “Did you get the goodies or not?”
     His lips fell into a frown, like I’d said his croissants were soggy. “Absolutement!” But his eyes dropped again.
     “Then what, Huey? You had to drop and run? Caught with your pants down? What?” I looked up and saw his wife, Ariel, behind the pastry counter. Short graying hair and short. The look she was giving me? It could freeze ice cubes. Twice. She turned away.
     “We lifted the paintings, all three.” Sunlight from the shop windows sparked the blue in Huey’s eyes. “But someone took them from us.”
     I stood, my chair falling backward.
     “Someone absconded with our goodies?”
     “Abstructed?” Huey looked confused. “No, they took the good stuff. By our van, they were waiting for us. Two men, with guns, in black, with ski masks. We had only the stun guns. It was necessary to hand over the good stuff.”
     “The word is goodies, not good stuff!” My shout turned the heads of the few patrons who sat in back. I smiled at them as best I could and leaned down close to Huey. My voice was back to a whisper: “Who?”
     “Who?” he says. I was close enough to smell the Pernot on Huey’s breath.
     “How drunk are you, Huey? One of your guys set us up. Assuming you didn’t decide to rip me off yourself, it had to be one of the other two. Who else would know we were taking those paintings last night, to be waiting for you at that van?”
Now we had a rat, and no paintings. That’s no way to start the day.
     I reached across and took Huey by the apron. “You think it was Frank? Or Kootie?”
     “You think one of them —?”
     “What do you think I’m talking about, Huey? I don’t know about you, but I was counting on that money.”
     “Please, Tommy, my apron.” I felt his hand on mine. “People are looking…”
     I’m a big guy in every respect, and didn’t quite realize I’d lifted him out of his chair. So I eased Huey back into his seat.
     If ever there was a time for Delilah’s Tantric exercises, that was it. Delilah was my masseuse.
     Breathe slowly in through the nose; close the eyes.
     Breathe slowly out through the lips; stroke back my hair and beard.
     Breathe slowly in through the nose; open the eyes.
     Breathe slowly out through the lips; focus on that goofball Huey sitting across from me.
     “So which was it?” I says, all quiet. “Frank or Kootie?”
     He shrugged, as only the French can, with his palms up and the mouth down around his ankles. “How would I know?”
     I straightened my tie and buttoned my top coat. Then I whispered. “You’re a pro, Huey. A pro keeps an eye on his string to make sure there’s no monkey business. Does Frank or Kootie gamble? Does a woman have her hooks into one of them? Find out. You have twenty four hours.”
     Huey followed me into the vestibule, which wasn’t easy. There was only room for me and a sheet of paper.
     “Twenty four hours?” He was looking up at me, like some scared kid at the class bully. “Then what?”
     “I like you, Huey.” I put a hand on his shoulder, and not lightly. “But this is business.” I patted him on the cheek.
     I left him standing in the vestibule.
     What was I planning to do in twenty four hours? I was no mobster, no goon, no hard ass. I was the chump with four cats at home: Snuggles, Lady Fuzz, Tigsy and Herman. Damaging people or animals wasn’t my hustle, mainly because people who hurt eventually end up hurt. Even at my size, because guns change the equation. Like Pop used to say, a pistol can turn a monster into a mouse. I didn’t much like the idea of being tortured or killed, so a long time ago I decided there was a line I wouldn’t cross. Just a little rule I had.
     I knew that the first thing Huey would do after I left would be to tip off Frank and Kootie. Intentionally or unintentionally. This meant I’d have to put a tail on all three of them, using an investigator kind of guy, an associate. I had already put a fix on where they all lived because I liked being careful. As soon as Frankie and Kootie realized they were suspect, they would start acting mutable. Mutable means losing your cool. People who act mutable always make mistakes. And they never get the money.
     Which is why I found my emotional center at Ariel’s Patisserie Bistro and stopped being mutable.
     I could either freak out or figure out.
     Guess which pays?

This ends the excerpt from Brian Wiprud's BUY BACK

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