By Paul Kupperberg
The three old men were long finished with their breakfast and were loitering in the corner booth with their coffee over a table of dirty dishes waiting to be cleared. They sprawled with the easy familiarity of their years, talking in deep, rumpling voices that periodically erupted in raspy, phlegm filled laughter.
Sam, whose long, wavy white hair swept back from his forehead like a geriatric Elvis, was clawing at the air over the table for attention.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “You’re talking about Ernie here? Our Ernie? My ex-business partner, Ernie Bauer?”
“Yes, Ernie Bauer. Our Ernie. That Ernie,” said Lester, who was wedged in the corner, his shaved head gleaming like an artillery shell in the diner’s harsh florescent light.
“The one you saw?” said Sam.
Lester threw his friend a look that would have made any one other than an old friend instantly back down, but Sam said, “The Ernie’s been dead…what is it? Eight, nine years now?”
“Nine years,” said Gabe, the accountant, as ever verifying the facts and figures.
“Yeah, nine years ago,” Sam said, flinging the words back like a challenge at Lester.
“Allegedly dead, ” Lester said.
“Look, you retired a dozen years ago, buddy boy. You can stop with the cop talk already,” Sam said.
“They didn’t allegedly bury him, did they?” Gabe said, half to himself, swiveling in his seat to search for someone to supply more coffee.
“We don’t know if they buried anybody. I didn’t go to the funeral. Did you?”
Gabe shrugged. “Wasn’t time. Dropped dead on a Tuesday, the funeral was Wednesday. All of a sudden they got religious and had to have him in the ground in twenty-four hours. By the time we heard, it was all over but for sitting shiva.”
“It wasn’t Phyllis called me with the news. How about you?” Lester said.
“Some guy…I guess he was from the funeral home,” Gabe said, nodding as he remembered. “But I’m not surprised Phyllis didn’t call. She never made it secret she didn’t like us.”
Sam sat fidgeting with a paper napkin, tearing off tiny pieces that he dropped on the ruins of his low cholesterol veggie omelet and zucchini home fries.
Lester looked across the table at the eyes watching him with curiosity, the same eyes he’d known for over five decades, now set in faces wilted by the years. He never really noticed the passing time in their faces or his own, except when he was remembering the past. And Ernie was a relic of the past.
“Anyway, he dropped dead after Phyllis and him moved down to Florida,” Sam said quickly. “Guy you saw must’ve just been someone who looked like Ernie.”
Lester scavenged a surviving fry from one of the plates and dredged it through a puddle of ketchup.
“Maybe I don’t have the back or the legs to be a cop anymore, but I still got a cop’s eyes. I don’t ever forget a face.” Lester smiled. “Especially not one I’ve known since I’m fourteen years old. Besides, Ernie didn’t go anywhere near Florida. He went west, to Vegas.”
“Vegas now?” Gabe said, momentarily relenting in his hunt for a refill. “Phyllis hated the desert. That doesn’t make any sense, Les.”
“If the universe had to wait for everything to make sense to you, Gabe, nothing would ever happen,” Lester said. “Besides, Phyllis never made it out of Queens.”
Gabe looked surprise. “No?”
Lester shook his head. “Uh-uh. The current popular thinking was that Ernie popped her and dumped her in a construction site.” He shifted his gaze to Sam. “Probably that parking garage your company was building in Astoria at the time. That’s a lot of cement to cover a skinny little broad like Phyllis, huh, Sammy?”
“Popped? You mean killed?” Gabe said, but Lester was looking at Sam and didn’t answer.
Sam nodded and took a sip of water. “That job was a monster,” he said hoarsely. “Last contract me and Ernie worked on before he sold out to me and they moved to Florida.”
“Vegas,” Lester said.
“Vegas,” Sam said.
“And it wasn’t ‘they,’ it was just him. Phyllis was dead.”
“Jesus,” Gabe muttered under his breath.
Sam spread his hands and said, “Look, Les, I don’t know where all this is coming from, but the last time I saw Phyllis she was alive and well, and if Ernie was dumping bodies anywhere, I….”
“You guys are just yanking my chain, right?” Gabe said. “I mean, Ernie couldn’t’ve killed anyone. Sure as hell not Phyllis.”
Conversation stopped as the waitress came by with her twin pots of caffeine and decaf and refilled their cups. Sam kept his eyes down and busied himself with sweetener and cream for his coffee. Gabe watched anxiously until the waitress was finished and had moved out of earshot before saying, “Okay, so why make us think he’s dead if he isn’t? I know Ernie liked his practical jokes, but I don’t see him going this far for one.”
“Do you want to tell him, Sam?” Lester said. He stared hard at his old friend over the rim of his coffee cup.
“Tell me what?” Gabe said, his head swiveling from face to face like a kitten following a ping pong ball in play.
Sam sat shaking his head.
“You and Phyllis…?” Lester prompted.
“You and Phyllis?” Gabe said, almost a shout.
“Stop it, Les,” Sam said in a whisper.
Lester kept his eyes on Sam but spoke to Gabe.
“Yeah, Gabe. Sam and Phyllis. The heart wants what the heart wants, right, Sammy? I guess it had been going on a while.” Lester looked to Sam for confirmation. Sam stared into his coffee, said nothing. “It doesn’t matter. Ernie isn’t exactly the innocent victim in this story anyway. He used to slap her around when he got tight, which was most of the time. And he was mobbed up, right in bed with the crooked union bosses.”
“Christ!” Gabe said through a sharp exhalation of breath. “Where was I while this was all going on?”
“You were living a normal life out on Long Island that didn’t include having to watch your back all the time,” Lester said. “You were the smart one, Gabie. I became a cop, Sam and Ernie dabbled in the rackets…”
“I…I was just the front,” Sam said suddenly, still staring into his coffee like it held all the answers. “I didn’t know what was going on, I mean the details, at least. I didn’t want to know. I just kept my mouth shut and took my cut. Ernie took care of business, but I still had to sign things…my name was all over his crooked deals. He…he’d order truckloads of supplies for jobs that his gangster pals would drive off with and sell on the street for less than we were stuck paying the suppliers. His union buddies gouged me on the other end, forcing me to pad my crews with all these thugs who go paid to sit around and do nothing.”
“They were sucking you dry,” Lester said.
Sam nodded. “Yeah. Goddamned vultures. It took me twenty years to build my business and less than two years after I let Ernie in for those bastards to strip it to the bare walls.”
“Was that when you almost went into bankruptcy?” Gabe said.
“I did. Chapter eleven reorganization. There was hardly anything left to steal so Ernie and the mob moved on to their next victim.”
“You must have wanted to kill him,” Lester said.
“What’s that supposed to be? One of your stock sympathetic policeman lines designed to trick a confession out of me?” Sam said, allowing the smallest suggestion of a smile to tug at the corner of his mouth.
“I was always more of the rubber hose kind of interrogator,” Lester said with a shrug. “Anyway, I know you didn’t kill Ernie.”
“Even before you saw him again?”
“Yeah. You missed him and got her.”
Sam didn’t answer.
“It’s okay, Sammy. I’m retired and I’ve had a long time to put two and two together. I wasn’t on the case at the time, but the mob squad knew I knew you guys and kept me in the loop. As far as the cops are concerned, you’re clean. There’s no investigation, no one official’s looking at you, there’s no evidence waiting to be sprung on you. It’s just us, man. Old friends, hanging out in the diner and shooting the shit.”
“You wired?” Sam said.
“Wired?” Lester laughed. “What is this, an episode of Law & Order? I told you, it’s just us. C’mon, close the case for me, Sammy. For old time’s sake.”
Gabe’s eyes were wide with disbelief. “Okay, really, you guys did just cook this whole thing up to mess with me, didn’t you?”
“Sorry, Gabe,” Sam said. He shivered from head to toe, like a man jolted awake from a restless sleep. “But, yeah, it’s true. Ernie was a thug, I was a patsy, and me and Phyllis had an affair for a little over two years.”
“When?” Lester said.
“What difference does it make?”
“Because we’re closing the case and I need details to do that,” Lester said. “Besides, confession’s good for the soul.”
Sam shrugged. “The last two years. Ernie had gotten completely out of control, drinking, whoring, and slapping her around. Me and Phyllis ran into each other at a local restaurant, started talking, one thing lead to another….” He shrugged again. “At first, I felt like I was getting back at the son of a bitch by banging his wife, but even before I realized he didn’t give a crap about her, I fell in love with her.
“You want my confession, Les? Fine. Yeah, I had Ernie out of my company, what was left of it, and now I wanted him out of our way so Phyllis and me could be together. So I waited a few months until things cooled down and the dust had settled…you know, that bastard never stopped acting like there wasn’t anything wrong between us? Still good old lifelong pals. But I played it his way, so that after I killed him, I wouldn’t be a suspect.
“I waited for a night I knew Phyllis wasn’t going to be home and went over there to kill Ernie. It was easy enough. Phyllis had given me the key, so I walked in, went upstairs, and put two into him while he was asleep.”
“But it wasn’t Ernie in that bed,” Lester said, his voice as flat as glass.
“Ernie was gone. I wasn’t the only one he’d screwed over, but some of the others were in a position do something lethal about it, so he skipped town. He didn’t even stop for a suitcase. His toothbrush was still on the sink.”
“So that’s it. That’s what happened to Ernie. I always thought it was weird we never heard from again after he left town,” Gabe said.
“And Phyllis?” Lester prompted.
“There was a voicemail from her on my phone when I got home. After I’d,” Sam said as a tear spilled from his right eye. He took a deep breath and went on, “After I’d gotten rid of the gun and her body in the parking garage pour, like you said. She said her girlfriend had canceled their plans and when she got home, Ernie and all the cash he kept hidden at the bottom of that giant bin for the dog food in the pantry were gone. She said I should call her. She had something important to talk to me about.
“The next thing I’m hearing, Ernie and Phyllis have retired to Florida, and all I can think is, it’s over. Ernie’s out of my life, but he’s taken everything away from me. My work. Phyllis.”
“You killed Phyllis,” Lester said.
“I pulled the trigger,” Sam said softly, “but she’s only dead because of Ernie. If he hadn’t…”
“Yeah, but you pulled the trigger,” Lester repeated.
“Hey, okay, Les, cut him some slack, man. He knows what he did…”
“Sure he does, Gabe. He knows he let Ernie push him into a corner, rob him blind, humiliate him, then not have the balls to look him in the eye when he kills him so he could be with his wife. If he had, Phyllis would still be alive.”
Sam jerked up straight in his seat. “Jeez, Lester, what the hell…?”
Lester leaned in, his voice low and still without expression as he said, “I was the something important she had to talk to you about.”
“What’d you have to do with anything?”
“I was the ‘girlfriend’ who cancelled on her that night, Sammy. Something came up and she was home in bed instead of in bed with me when you went there to shoot Ernie. She’d always been too afraid to leave him, but once he was gone, there was nothing left in our way, except you.”
“How…how long?” Sam said in a stunned stutter.
“Five years. On and off. We were off at the time she started going with you, but she called me a few months before Ernie took off and said she was lonely and missed me.”
“Oh,” Sam said, sagging as though he were a balloon from which the air had been released.
The three old friends sat in silence, Lester’s eyes fixed on Sam, whose own eyes shifted spastically under twitching eyebrows.
Finally, Sam said, “I loved her.”
“Yeah, so did I. But you killed her,” Lester said.
“Wait,” Gabe said. “Les, you said you saw Ernie. I thought he was in hiding from those gangsters?”
“He was. But he did some guys some favors and wormed his way back into their good graces and they let him come back home. Guess he’s getting back into business, right where he left off.”
Sam went pale.
“Oh, Christ. What if he knows…?”
“He didn’t,” Lester said. “He thought the boys looking for him had killed her to send him a warning, so he split with the shirt on his back and a hundred grand from the dog food canister.”
Sam was still, turning an even whiter shade of pale, his next words dry whispers:
“How do you know all this, Les?”
“Right. I didn’t mention I also talked to Ernie, did I?”
Sam fell back against the seat.
“You don’t see one of your oldest friends of over fifty years who you thought was dead on the R train and not say hello.”
“How…how much does he know?”
“Like I say, he thought the mob killed Phyllis,” Lester said with a short bark of a humorless laugh. “Man, was he surprised when I told him I saw you coming out of his house just before I got there and found Phyllis dead.”
Sam swallowed. “You knew?”
“You walked right past my car, asshole,” Lester said. “You were in six kinds of shock, so I went inside. About five minutes later, I heard someone coming into the house, I guess to haul away her body, so I left. But, yeah. I’ve been pretty sure it was you all along.”
“Then why didn’t you do something about it?”
Lester shrugged. “I wasn’t a cop anymore, and I didn’t have any evidence. For all I knew, Ernie came back, popped her, then disappeared for good. But I knew in my gut it was you. I figured she’d tried to tell you about me and you killed her.”
“No, I had no clue,” Sam said.
“Neither did Ernie. Until I told him.”
Sam blinked. “Wait. You…what did you say?”
“I said I told Ernie you killed his wife because she was trying to break off the affair,” Lester said and glanced at his wristwatch. “I also told him we were still having our regular Sunday morning breakfasts here. Said we would be meeting today at ten o’clock.”
“What did you do?” Gabe said with a startled gasp.
“I lied a little, to give us time to talk,” Lester said. “But it’s almost ten now. Wouldn’t surprise me if Ernie got here a little early, just to be sure he didn’t miss you.”
“Dear god,” Sam whispered and started to shake. “How could you, Les? He’ll kill me. I…I thought we were friends.”
Lester, stone faced, shrugged. “We were. That’s why I’m giving you the head start, Sammy. That’s more than Phyllis ever got from you.”
Sam’s mouth flapped open and shut without sound, his forehead beaded with sweat. But there was nothing left to say before he stumbled from the booth and hurried stiffly out the door.
“Jesus Christ, Les,” Gabe said, breathing hard like he had just been forced to run a great distance. “How could you…I mean, no matter how you felt about Phyllis…?”
“You know what’s been gnawing at me ever since, Gabe? That whoever had done it was going to get away with murder, and the old cop in me just couldn’t live with that anymore. I finally just had to know, just had to close the case…but I don’t know where to find Ernie, so I went to work on Sam.”
“Wait…so did you see Ernie or not?”
“What difference does it make? Now I know, and now he doesn’t get away with it. Nobody ever paid for what happened to Phyllis. That isn’t right.”
“You don’t think he’s paid? What about his conscience, living with the guilt of what he did?”
“Screw his guilty conscience. He thought he’d gotten away with murder, now he’s gonna spend the rest of his life running and looking over his shoulder for Ernie.”
“I never knew you were this cold, Les.”
“If I was cold, I wouldn’t care…or I’d just kill Sam myself. Naw, this is me, giving Sam a break, for old time’s sake.”
Gabe shook his head. “So…no Ernie?”
Lester shrugged, drained his coffee cup, and signaled the waitress for the check.
“That’s too bad,” Gabe said with a sigh. “I would’ve liked to know what happened to him.”
©2016 Paul Kupperberg
(From In My Shorts: Hitler’s Bellhop and Other Stories by Paul Kupperberg, available from Crazy 8 Press.)