“You’re leaving us, Mr. Carlino?” Mrs. Hepburn was large and tended to gush. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard. What’ll we do without The New Curiosity Shop?”
Mr. Carlino smiled. “Nothing is set yet. We still have to find a place to live in New York.” Outside in the darkening street, the Vermont town’s one patrol car cruised past. The deputy driving waved, and Mr. Carlino waved back.
“And what does Bernice think of this?”
“She’s looking forward to it,” Mr. Carlino lied. “We’re both from the city, after all. And since Mr. Wagner passed away last month we really don’t have much to keep us here.”
“Oh, yes. I’m so sorry about her father. Please tell Bernice if there’s anything at all I can do –-”
“Oh, my, look at the time. I have to dash. But please don’t leave us, Mr. Carlino. We’d miss you so much! Ta!”
Alone in the shop, Mr. Carlino listened to the Big Bird Tell-the-Time Clock tick steadily, like the beating of a heart. Outside, a November rain fell. Nobody came in.
He rose to turn the sign to CLOSED and lock the door; it was nearly five o’clock, his closing time in winter. That’s the problem. Vermonters don’t need estate watches or Patti Page albums or rotary dial phones or oil company signs and maps. In a good week he might sell just enough to tourists from New York and Philadelphia to pay for the heating for a day.
It was a running joke among the townsfolk. “Just how do you make a living, anyway, Jack?” one would ask over a beer at Crenna’s, and Mr. Carlino would snap back with, “Money laundering for wealthy Japanese businessmen,” or “I have a string of call girls in Reno. Want me to fix you up?”
He strode, a lean figure in dark blue sweater and gray wool slacks, to the register to close it out. They’d be shocked if they knew the real answer. . . .
Fourteen years, he thought. No, fifteen, we came here in ’92. Bernice to take care of her father, and me to run his store. He looked absently at the bookshelves of ceramic figurines, Mattel toy guns, and back issues of National Geographic. It’s been pleasant enough. But it’s time. Lord, how I want to go home!
As he drove through the slick empty streets, a part of his mind always on alert, he remembered New York. The Village on a spring day; Park and Fifth Avenues; Rockefeller Center glittering at Christmas; summer concerts in Central Park.
Everything in him screamed to live where he didn’t know everyone, couldn’t predict what each of them would say before he said it, where there were more than two decent restaurants. (Weston Corners had a French bistro and a German beer hall, whose owners glared at each other across Main Street as if they were still fighting World War II.) The Corners was fine, it was comfortable -– but ah God, he was so bored. . . .
Bernice greeted him as he stepped into their warm bright kitchen. She was a sturdy woman, not plain but never pretty, with gray-streaked dark hair. “Hi, hon. Make a killing today?”
“Big one.” Mr. Carlino kissed her and hung up his coat and hat. “Sold two Redbooks and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. card game.”
“See? I told you things would pick up. Jack –” hopefully “– have you thought about it? About staying, I mean?”
“Bernice . . .”
“Oh, I know, I know. But it’s such a good town, isn’t it? Such good people.”
“True.” At Mr. Wagner’s funeral, half the town had turned out. The old man had retired in ‘92; not many people in the crowd could have known who he was. Yet they had shown up, and Mr. Carlino still wondered why. “But –-”
“Never mind. Forget I said anything. Dinner’ll be in a bit. Oh, and that Mr. Felton called for you again.”
Mr. Carlino turned to look at her. “Felton.”
“Yes. Said your fathers were in the Pacific together, at Guado -– Guada –”
“Guadalcanal,” Mr. Carlino said quietly.
“That was it. He said he might have a consignment for the store. Here’s the number.”
Mr. Carlino slid the paper into his pocket, reminding himself to burn it. “Thank you, Bernice. What is it that smells so delicious?”
“Indian pot roast. New recipe.”
“Ah,” said Mr. Carlino.
* * *
After dinner he told Bernice he needed to stretch his legs after a day in the shop. He walked cautiously –- the rain had stopped, but the ground was still slippery -– up the hill to Crenna’s Tavern.
Crenna’s had two claims to fame: cold draft beer, and what Crenna touted as “the last working honest-to-Christ phone booth in New England.” Tourists came to see it, but since he charged them the price of a drink to use it, the tall wooden booth was usually available for locals.
It was also private and unlikely to be tapped.
Mr. Carlino nodded to two or three people he knew, took his beer with him to the booth, shut the folding door, and dialed. “Four-five-three-seven.”
“Guadalcanal,” Mr. Carlino responded.
“Jack! A pleasure to hear from you.” Felton’s voice was like warm caramel. Mr. Carlino had never met him in the sixteen years they’d been doing business, but he pictured the man as looking like Orson Welles. “How are things in that Mayberry of the North? Are you well?”
“Are you free for a little project?”
No need to ask what kind. “Whereabouts?”
“On Long Island. No rush, but the client needs closure before the end of the year. Standard fee, half in advance.”
Mr. Carlino thought. “I can go down on Sunday, scout the territory. Five for expenses.”
“Very well. Check at — Oh, that’s right, you haven’t worked this area in a long time. Manfredo’s Garage, the South Bronx. Manfredo’s a German from Uruguay; quite useful. Mention the Battle of Midway.”
“Midway. Got it.”
“A pleasure doing business with you, Jack.” Click.
Mr. Carlino smiled. A job in the city. He could look at apartments while he was down there.
* * *
On Sunday he got a late start. His Oldsmobile had developed a blister on one tire. Grumbling goodnaturedly, his neighbor Charlie, who owned the local tire store, opened up, sold him a new Dunlop, and mounted and balanced it. By noon he was on his way.
In contrast to yesterday, the Vermont sky was a clear hard blue as he skimmed south on I-87. It made Mr. Carlino feel the way he had some twenty years back, when he’d just gotten out of the Special Forces and before he’d met Bernice: free, with all sorts of opportunities in front of him.
Bernice — He’d told her, truthfully, that this was a business trip; less truthfully, that it was for the store. She had no idea what he did on these trips, and he preferred to keep it that way. . . .
He reached the South Bronx just after nightfall. Dark buildings hulked around the neon-signed entrance to Manfredo’s Garage and Storage. Inside, sickly fluorescent lighting gleamed on rows of ill-kept cars. Nobody was in sight.
Behind the counter in the office stood a short man. He sloped from head to neck to pear-shaped body, so that Mr. Carlino thought he resembled a small pink walrus. His brown coveralls (with Manfredo sewn on the chest) and small bristly mustache cemented the resemblance.
“We’re closed, sir.” His faint German accent made it Ve’re clohsst.
“Mr. Felton said to ask for you, Manfredo. Said you were an expert on the Battle of Midway.”
“Ah, Mr. Felton, yah!” Manfredo nodded happily. He bent beneath the counter and brought out a thick envelope.
Mr. Carlino slid it into his overnight case. “I’ll need a car. Something nondescript.”
“I have it tomorrow. And a universal wrench, with bolts to match? Perhaps an extension?”
Mr. Carlino sighed. All of Felton’s contacts used the same code words, like kids who’d seen too many spy movies. Still, one had to work with these people. “A Size Two. I’ve got one, but another slick wrench would be useful.”
“Yah. Call. I have it all ready.”
A spread of colorful travel brochures for Sweden, France, and Indonesia lay atop the counter. Manfredo saw him looking. “My one vice. A desire for travel, for excitement. I picture myself as a James Bond, with a license to kill. But I am stuck here with a wife and two children. Will you answer one question, my friend?”
“Let’s hear it.”
Manfredo leaned forward. “How does it feel? How is it when you, shall we say, ‘close the sale’?”
Mr. Carlino couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He said coldly, “I don’t think Mr. Felton would appreciate your asking questions, Manfredo.”
Manfredo’s smile vanished. His eyes were not large and dark like those of a walrus. They were small, and chilly blue. “As you say. Good luck with your project, my friend.”
* * *
As a boy in the late 1960s Mr. Carlino had been delighted by the subway. It was a way to zip around beneath the city, unseen by the denizens topside, cleaner and quieter than riding the Third Avenue bus.
Now, though . . . . . overcrowded, full of roaring and thundering, it stank: oil, fried food, sweetish hairspray, unwashed people. Mr. Carlino hung on to a strap, jammed between a purple-haired girl with a ring in her nose and a pudgy shaven-headed male in a leather vest who reeked of onions. He concentrated on breathing only through his mouth.
At Seventh Avenue he emerged with the pack onto a bustling platform. Suddenly the shaven-headed guy from the subway car jostled him. He patted Mr. Carlino’s coat. “Sorry, buddy, you okay?” He started to turn.
Snake-fast, Mr. Carlino clamped his left hand on the pickpocket’s wrist. The pudgy hand held Mr. Carlino’s wallet. Shaven-Head’s eyes widened.
Before he could pull away Mr. Carlino slammed his overnight case up into the denim-clad groin. Shaven-Head sagged and the wallet dropped from his nerveless fingers.
Mr. Carlino put his foot on his wallet to protect it, shifted his grip on Shaven-Head’s hand, and applied a disarming movement learned long ago.
The crack of bone and Shaven-Head’s screech were lost in the crowd noise and the rush of another train arriving. Mr. Carlino let him go, and he staggered back, slammed into a support pillar, and slid to his knees, clutching his ruined wrist.
Mr. Carlino bent, retrieved his wallet, and slid it into his pocket. Shaven-Head, face gray and sweating, gawked at him.
“Better find a new line of work,” Mr. Carlino told him. “You’re not too good at this.”
He hefted his bag and strode with the commuters up the stairs to Seventh Avenue.
* * *
The hotel on Ninth near 57th disappointed him. The room was tiny, the carpet threadbare, and the heater gave either full roasting heat or nothing. There was a skeletal room service menu, but Mr. Carlino recalled a Greek restaurant down in the Village.
He changed into a fresh shirt and tie, went down to the avenue, and flagged a cab.
The Yellow Cab pulled with a screech of brakes to the curb. He slid in and said, “Barrow Street, please.”
The cab didn’t move. A large head sprouting long black Medusa locks turned and a gabble issued from the mouth, ending with a noise like “. . . chahgemon.”
Mr. Carlino frowned. “What? Say again?”
“Fool suhchaaage, mon.”
It dawned on Mr. Carlino what the creature was saying. “Fuel surcharge?” A nod. “How much?”
“Five dollars? On top of the fare?”
“Yah, yah, mon.”
“No, no, ‘mon,’” Mr. Carlino snapped. He climbed out of the cab, ignoring the driver’s sulfurous invective, and went back up to his room and ordered Chinese. My God, they let anybody work in this city nowadays.
Over moo shu pork he settled down with the client’s information packet.
* * *
Name: Arthur Arkin. Age: 50. Occupation: Owner of a complex of used-car lots in Queens. Residence: Bayside. Wife of 23 years, no kids. Member of a Tuesday night bowling league — the client suspected this was a cover for an extramarital affair — and several businessmen’s clubs.
On Monday, in the shabby Ford Taurus Manfredo provided, Mr. Carlino followed Arkin from his faux-English manor house in Bayside to a gigantic auto complex on Northern Boulevard (Arkin Motors — We Keep You Rolling!!! the billboard read), and back again that night.
That evening Mr. Carlino made a purchase at a theatrical supply house in the West Forties, then bought a Times to check apartment and house listings. The prices (“Chelsea loft, 1 BR, $1,400,000”; “2 BR Gramercy rental, $5700”) stunned him. It’s a seller’s market right now, he told himself. Things are bound to improve. . . .
A story in the Metro section caught his eye. A traffic accident on Tenth Avenue yesterday had escalated into shoving and threats. Then, witnesses said, one driver whipped out a pistol, emptied it into the other driver, got into his dented vehicle, and drove calmly away . . . making sure to drive over the body of his victim as he went.
Mr. Carlino scowled. He stuffed the paper into the wastebasket and went to bed.
* * *
On Tuesday at 6:00 p.m., when Arkin’s Cadillac left the lot, he turned left instead of right. Mr. Carlino followed amid the early-evening rush.
Arkin turned in to the lot of a bowling alley two miles away. Mr. Carlino resigned himself to shivering in the Taurus, the heater of which spat out barely lukewarm heat. But not twenty minutes later, here came Arkin’s beefy figure, looking even larger in a light gray topcoat. He climbed into his Caddy and pulled out onto Northern again, heading east.
Just short of what the map said was the Nassau County line, Arkin swung left into a lot beneath a bright blue neon sign screaming SLEEPY LANE MOTEL.
Hm, thought Mr. Carlino.
He watched as Arkin visited the office, then drove his Caddy around to the rear of the motel. Mr. Carlino followed at a discreet distance and parked the Taurus under a burnt-out light. To his right, Arkin got out of his car, crossed the lot, opened the door to one of the units, went in, closed the door. After a moment the door opened a crack. Arkin’s thick arm reached through to hang the Do Not Disturb sign. Then the door shut again.
Mr. Carlino waited.
Less than ten minutes later a white Volkswagen Jetta purred into the lot and parked by Arkin’s Cadillac. A tall slim woman with dark hair — brunette or redhead? Too dim to tell -– got out. She wore a long dark raincoat and high heels. She trotted to Arkin’s room, knocked on the door. After a moment she went in and shut the door behind her. Bowling league indeed, thought Mr. Carlino.
As he waited, he wondered how Arkin had come to Felton’s attention. Arkin’s wife, looking for revenge for this affair? A business rival who wanted to corner the market on used Buicks?
He shrugged. You could drive yourself crazy that way. Arkin was the project; you took that as given, and you went in and did the most professional job you could. That was all that counted.
From the glove box he took a leather Bible case. Inside was Manfred’s universal wrench. As usual, it was “slick,” its serial number filed off. Mr. Carlino, gloved of course, screwed the extension in place and waited.
His watch read 7:50 when the room door opened. The woman -– the room light glinted on reddish hair -– lingered for a moment, speaking to Arkin. She flipped up her coat collar, scurried to her Jetta, hopped in, and drove off.
Mr. Carlino waited a few moments to make sure she was gone. It would be embarrassing if she came back in the middle of things. Then he left his car and strode across the empty lot toward Arkin’s door. He kept his head down, mindful of security cameras, though he doubted a place like this would have them. His right hand held the wrench down by his side; with his left he knocked.
“Who is it?”
“Abe Lincoln,” Mr. Carlino said, his gloved hand muffling his voice.
Heavy footsteps sounded, and Arkin opened the door. He wore dark boxer shorts. A white athletic shirt showed under his unbuttoned blue dress oxford. He blinked at Mr. Carlino. “Can I help you, buddy?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Carlino. He swung up the .22 Czech automatic and shot Arkin twice in the head. The “extension,” the sausage-like silencer, muffled the shots. Blap! Blap!
Arkin staggered back and crashed flat on his back on the motel floor by the bed.
Swiftly Mr. Carlino stepped in, shut the door, knelt by Arkin. The pulse fluttered and died even as he checked it. He hadn’t had a chance to test-fire the gun, and he’d worried it might throw high with the silencer. At a range of two feet, it hadn’t mattered.
Mr. Carlino rose, slid the gun into his coat pocket, and went out, shutting the door. Leave the Do Not Disturb hangtag on the handle; the later the body’s found the better. Back across the still empty lot to the car. Gun back into the case and case into the glove box. Start the car and drive, smoothly, smoothly out and into the traffic on Northern.
* * *
“All went well, yah?” Manfredo said.
They were alone in the garage office. Outside, the Taurus stood, dusty under the pale lights. In here the only light came from Manfredo’s desk lamp and the bright orange bars of his electric heater, making the room a crazy quilt of shadows. An electric wall clock read 10:16.
“Closed the sale,” Mr. Carlino said. It had taken two hours to drive into Manhattan, grab his bag, check out, and drive up to the Bronx. He took the Czech automatic from his coat pocket and slid it across the counter. “Good wrench.”
Manfredo showed long yellow teeth in a smile. Mr. Carlino looked at his dark brown sweatshirt and thought of the show about walruses he’d seen on Animal Planet. The most aggressive and powerful of the pinnipeds, the program had said.
“Never fear,” Manfredo said. “This gun will vanish.” With thick but nimble fingers he checked the clip, worked the slide, let it snap back into place. “But first it has one more job to perform. Please do not move.”
He aimed the pistol dead steady at Mr. Carlino’s heart.
Mr. Carlino nodded gloomily. The only sound was the hum of the heater and the drumbeat of blood in his ears. He said, “Ambition?”
“Indeed,” said Manfredo. “You did not expect this, did you? I too can be a ‘salesman,’ a ‘closer.'”
“Mr. Felton won’t be pleased.”
“Mr. Felton will have to approve. You will be gone, having proved that you were careless. And I will have proved I am bold enough to do this work. Turn, please.”
“Ever actually killed anyone, Manfredo? It’s not as easy as you think.”
“Soon I will know. Turn, please.”
Mr. Carlino shrugged. “I can take it if you can.”
Manfredo smiled. He brought up the pistol and fired. The gun spat fire and smoke . . . and Mr. Carlino stood unharmed.
For an instant Manfredo gaped in comic surprise at the gun. In that instant Mr. Carlino drew his own .380 Beretta with its chunky homemade silencer from his coat pocket. He fired twice.
Dark holes appeared in Manfredo’s throat and chest. He dropped the Czech gun and collapsed as if his legs had turned to aluminum foil.
Mr. Carlino swung around the counter and knelt by the dying man. Blood pumped from Manfredo’s wounds and he croaked something.
“Blanks,” Mr. Carlino said. “I did expect this. And I told you it wasn’t easy. You didn’t listen.”
But Manfredo was no longer listening to anything.
* * *
“Ah! Jack!” The warm voice. “How did things go?”
“I closed the sale. No problem with that.”
“Hm. Then there was some problem.”
“Unfortunately I had to remove one of the other executives from your staff. He was, as they say, bucking for a promotion. To my position.”
“I see.” Felton’s voice was neutral. “No other choice?”
“Very well then. And you cleaned up afterward, I trust?”
“As usual.” Mr. Carlino had parked the Taurus, keys in the ignition, several blocks from the garage; by morning it would be gone or stripped. The guns he’d disassembled. On the overnight drive back to Weston Corners, he scattered the parts -– and the stage prop blank bullets he’d purchased — in every stream and ditch along the roadside.
“Of course.” Felton sighed. “That executive will be hard to replace, but when a man gets to be a liability, he has to go. Good work, Jack. Your bonus will arrive in the usual fashion.”
Mr. Carlino hung up and stepped away from the town’s only other pay phone. One of these days I’ll need to get a cell phone. It was almost dawn. The air was cold and dry. As he looked down Main Street the first rays of the sun touched the roof of Knott’s Department Store, and he smiled.
He was cooking breakfast when Bernice padded out. Her dark hair was tousled, and as usual, he thought she looked lovely.
“My goodness,” she said. “Look who it is!” They kissed. “I didn’t expect you back so early.”
“Drove all night. Couldn’t sleep,” Mr. Carlino said truthfully. “Eggs?”
“Oui, oui, monsieur. And coffee. Did you find good stuff for the store?”
“Lots of interesting things. Here you go.”
“Thank you, dear. Mmm, that’s good.”
They ate quietly in the warm bright kitchen. Feels good to be here. Mr. Carlino thought of how the habitues of Crenna’s nodded to him when he came in, of how Charlie had opened the tire store on a Sunday when he was in a bind.
Mr. Wagner’s funeral. The town hadn’t turned out for the old man. They’d come out because of Bernice, and him.
“Mrs. Donner, the realtor, is coming to look at the house today. She says –-”
“No,” said Mr. Carlino.
“She says no?”
“I mean, no need. Tell her not to come.”
“But Jack, we have to get the house appraised if –-”
“No, we don’t. Not if we aren’t moving.”
Hope leaped in Bernice’s eyes. “You mean it?”
“Oh, Jack.” She leaned over and kissed him. Then she sat back and cocked her head. “Something happened in New York?”
Mr. Carlino took a deep breath. “Those people down there in that city, Bernice . . .”
“. . . they’re dangerous!”
MR. CARLINO’S PROJECT
by Paul Sundeson
About the Author
A native of New Orleans, Paul Sundeson grew up on Bourbon Street. A former computer analyst and technical writer, he is currently an administrator for a local N.O. college. His “amateur detective” novel, Griffin in Steel, won the Mystery competition of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ 2004 Colorado Gold Writing Contest. While he still lives in the city with a half-Persian and a Siberian (cats, not people), after the chaos of Hurricane Katrina he wishes fervently he could live anywhere else.
This story appeared a few years ago (before Mad Men ever premiered and made the early Sixties fashionable) on Thrilling Detective: http://www.thrillingdetective.com/fiction/07_12_03.html