It starts like everything does, innocently and with the best intentions. Word goes around about extra money and he takes a job, making a few bills more than the job on the factory floor pays. He doesn't ask questions because he doesn't want to know the answers. He doesn't need to know the hows and whys of anything to make sure he gets a package from here to there, make sure that what he takes from one guy in a suit ends up with the other guy in a suit with nothing going on in-between.
He's not looking for an education. He's just looking to pay off a few things he borders on being ashamed of before he tries to settle down, before he spends too many hours in some mall or department store, looking at diamonds that flash like a life he can't afford.
The problem is that with a little extra money in his pocket, it's hard not to find a way deeper into debt. He finds fresh decks of cards and stacks of chips, aces and clubs that run through his fingers like water. Three of a kind and a full house, twenty-one and bust, felt tables and free drinks until he doesn't know which way is up, until he realizes his money's gone and not coming back again.
He thinks about the future when he rolls the dice and about the things that grow when you're not looking. There's gray smoke and dust in the air around him, and he can't breath for the stranglehold around his chest, fingers of debt and despair and desolation that drum against his rib cage until everything feels like it's going to break down and break apart.
There's a guy on the swing shift, Max, and he's got a line on another deal. It's too good to be true and too good to pass up, so he makes a late-night phone call and signs an imaginary dotted line.
He thinks he just dreamed it all until he finds the package in his locker at work, nothing else disturbed, the lock just as secure as when he snapped it shut that morning. It's boxy and brown, like any package you'd find in the US Mail or at UPS. He treats it like the envelopes he dealt with before, not caring what's inside.
There's a typed letter on top with the instructions, and he follows them to the letter. It's as easy as that and he doesn't say a word about the extra hundred dollars in his check the next week, union dues be damned.
Max slaps him on the back the next day and suddenly he's got a new set of friends. It's like he's joined some exclusive club, the nillionaires club of the downtrodden even though they don't talk about anything but the same bullshit they talked about before. There's a secret now, and he's a part of it, a link in the chain of command.
The first time he realizes what kind of game he's playing, he's watching the late news, drowning out the recriminations and disappointment from dinner with his parents with what's left of a six-pack from his fridge. It's cold enough to freeze each timeworn and weary phrase in its tracks, his mother's voice cracking like melting ice.
The rest of the world disappears though as his TV screen is filled with flames and sprays of evaporating water, the newscaster's voice betraying nothing but the facts. "…a warehouse fire near the Pulaski Skyway is still massively engulfed in flames, despite the presence of several firefighters. Though the warehouse was empty, the land is rumored to be included in a multi-million dollar deal. No official word has been given, but it is likely that there will be an arson investigation of the case."
He stares unseeing through the bumper and the first two commercials before he finds his feet and digs through the pocket of his coat. The envelope is stained with oil, and he's certain he can see his fingerprints, as big and clear as day. He carries it into the kitchen and turns the stove burner on, holding the paper against the coils until it glows red, hot enough to burn. He carries it smoldering to the sink and sets it on the chipped porcelain, watching it turn to ash and trail away in the slow, steady drip of the leaky faucet.
There's nothing in his locker for weeks and he lets himself think it's over. He's been good, been careful, been quiet. He's followed his routine as if his life depended on it. He's been to the bars and told old, dirty jokes that weren't funny the first time around. He's laughed and drank beer, bitched about non-existent raises and opportunity, about rising prices no one can afford.
There's some talk about the fire and the investigation, but just the general hubbub he'd expect. He listens with half an ear, feigning complete disinterest. He's convinced himself it's coincidence and lets himself forget, letting the beer and the pool and the darts lead him back to the tables, a promised land of dyed clay and green felt.
He wins just enough to keep playing, and he loses just enough to stay in the sights of whomever it is he meant to hide from. He wants to push off the blame, leave it on the shoulders of wining and dining, dancing and romance, but he knows he can only place it on dimly lit tables and smoke-filled rooms.
He still thinks he's safe until he gets to his locker after a swing shift, tasting burnt metal and oil-based gear grease at the back of his throat, breathing death in one lungful at a time. On top of his gray lunch pail there's an envelope, burnt gold and filled with green, bright like a new start, like the other side.
Deliver the package and this is just the beginning of his future, the end of his debt. New leaf, new start, just don't watch the evening news.
He calls her 'honey' when he kisses her, pretends that they're in some old black and white movie, James Cagney or Fred Astaire or maybe he's Cary Grant. He wants to ask her why she keeps hanging around, but he doesn't want her to tell him, or to change her mind when he knows she's the best thing he's got going. He buys her things instead; knockoff jewelry and lingerie, perfumes and pretty dresses. She always has a vase of flowers on her table, and it takes him six months of hung-over coffees and watery eggs in her kitchen to realize they're fake.
She plays the tables when she's not waiting them, blackjack and slots, penny ante shit that strains her tips, until she draws her low cut blouses down even more to build the bank back up again. She tells him where the games are in town, and sometimes he wonders if she's taking kickbacks for getting another sucker to the table.
He doesn't intend for it to happen, but she's at his place when the call comes in, and everyone's always looking for a better time, even her. She rides shotgun, singing along with the song on the radio. It's something old and rocking, sung by somebody already dead, and her voice doesn't match the rough sound of the angry guitars.
The building is dark and he leaves the package in plain sight. She turns her head to watch out the back window as they drive away. He doesn't ask what, if anything, she sees, and she doesn't say, but that night she takes him deeper, clings tighter until he thinks she might tear him apart.
He never looks inside. He knows that's likely the only thing that keeps him alive. That and the fact that he doesn't ask questions, doesn't talk. He did make the mistake of asking about Max one day, where he was, if he was out sick. He never quite got a real answer, but he understood what wasn't said well enough to shut his mouth and keep it shut.
Of course, silence doesn't keep the world from crashing down. This time it's the daily paper that breaks the story. It reads like a novel, every twist and turn and possibility on the page – drugs, gambling and prostitution, politics and payoffs, bribery and greed. He watches it like a jigsaw puzzle falling into place, coming together piece after piece until you can almost see the whole picture.
It's like Pacino and DeNiro and Brando, men with mottled skin and dark suits blinking against the sunlight as if they'd never seen it before they put on oversized sunglasses with mirrored lenses that hide everything. There's talk of trials and charges, of money laundering and hit men. The envelopes and packages stop. He understands. Evidence is anything that doesn't belong where you find it.
It keeps getting worse. Games get shut down, secrets somehow leaking out like the solid foundation is full of cracks. There are rumors of a mob war, of a street war, of a drug war, and he stares at the headlines wondering if he's a soldier in any of them or a victim of them all. The DA and the cops are suddenly everywhere and nothing is safe. Books and ledgers and accountants are the talk on everyone's lips, even though no one makes a sound.
He watches from the sidelines, from the shadows and the rafters and it doesn't take too long to notice someone's watching him. He looks like the typical mid-level manager, his threadbare and shiny suit only hinting at the dirt and grime from the factory floor.
The suit breaks up the crowd, sending them back to their respective jobs. There's low rumbling as everyone disperses, whispered words and uncertainty, no one sure what anything means. He feels a tap on his shoulder and stops, stepping out of the way of the other men heading back to the gray floor. It's the suit, nodding off toward the cubicle he calls his office. They walk there in silence and he sits when the suit gestures, shifting uncomfortably in his coveralls on the faux leather.
"We've been pleased with your work." His voice is high pitched, like the vocal equivalent of squinting, tight and pinched. "You've shown a lot of potential."
He knows they're not talking about the grease and gears of the floor. He does his job, punches the clock and gets paid here. He hasn't impressed anyone or anything. "I do my best."
"It's been noticed." His face is puckered against the smell of the factory and distaste for something, possibly his lot in life, a familiar feeling. "We'd like you to do a few more things for us. Take on a few extra responsibilities."
He nods before he can think about it, before he even considers what he's doing. He's not sure if no is even allowed as an answer, but he knows there's no way he can say it. There are too many things he's already done to say no now. "Of course."
"We'll be in touch." The suit pushes a paper toward him and it's only then that he sees the nameplate. Mr. Brown matches his suit, his demeanor and he doesn't see the words at first, too caught up in his own private amusement. There are directions and instructions and ten hundred-dollar bills attached to the bottom. He pockets the cash and folds the note carefully, tucking it inside his shirt pocket beneath the coveralls. He heads back downstairs, his face creased in a frown. Everyone gives him a wide berth and he's mostly grateful, money already spent in his head, bet double down, letting it ride.
He calls her honey when she knows the games, tells him where the big boys are playing. She sets him up sweet and then she lets it ride on his hand, just the way he likes it. He sees her watching and she blows on his dice from time to time, touches the back of his neck with drink-wet fingers, condensation sticking to his skin. She's a player and he laughs when they go home together, her tips and his winnings like an extra layer of lust when they fall into bed. Sex isn't anything after the high of winning, but it's good enough that he lies there in bed beside her until he falls asleep.
She's gone in the morning, and he's not going to complain. His wallet's where he left it, but like usual, she's tossed his clothes over the back of his chair. It takes a moment for the early morning, non-caffeinated haze to clear, but then suddenly everything crashes around his head and he scrambles to his shirt, digging in the pocket for the note. It's still there, folded neat and precise, just like when he'd placed it in there, corners matched to corners.
He catches the crease between his finger and thumbnail, sharpening the folds before opening the sheet to read the typewritten words.
Oakenfold. March 17. 7pm.
He nods to himself and heads into the bathroom, swallowing aspirin down dry. He watches his reflection in the mirror as he soaks the paper in the sink, crumpling it into a useless, wet ball of pulp before dropping it into the trash.
The package is another manila envelope, and the man who gives it to him gives new meaning to 'out of sight, out of mind'. It's impossible to describe him when he's standing right in front of him, and now, safe in his apartment, he's as indefinable as a ghost. Honey's there making dinner, dented pans of corn and gravy on the stove, the smell of meatloaf and buttery potatoes in the air. He glances toward the kitchen then moves to the bedroom to slit the envelope open, careful to minimize any sign of tampering, and looks inside.
He knows the stakes are higher now, just like he knows that last night he dropped another four thousand practically before he realized he was losing. So he looks and sees the three stacks of hundred-dollar bills and the pale, cream paper covered in solid black handwriting.
Occidental and 37th
He knows the area fairly well now; he's spent his fair share of time down there lately. There's only one thing that could be a target, another abandoned warehouse that covers four trap doors that lead into the home of some of the town's highest stake games. He slips the envelope into his sock drawer. His delivery is tomorrow. And then…
He watches from a distance. He's watched enough TV and movies to stay well out of the immediate vicinity, but the sound and fury of the flames – bottles of liquor exploding beneath the surface and nursing the fire, shaking the ground even this far away. The flames lick at the sky, aftershocks rolling like an earthquake.
The local radio news station doesn't start carrying the story until everything has died down, faded to charcoal, black blocking out all but the faintest hints of dawn on the horizon. He hears the report and it sounds the same now as it did when it all first started. Suspected arson. No suspects. No deaths. Nothing to point a finger at, though the DA is calling down empty threats of a day of reckoning, without realizing the reckoning has already come.
The envelopes come faster, more frequently, and he finds himself in the clubs and the bars, leaving Honey behind at the tables as he slips down darkened hallways to deliver the packages that leave him feeling lighter when he passes them off. Honey never says a word, just drinks her drinks or rolls the dice, watching him with vacant eyes. He always comes back to her side, slipping an arm around her waist and pulling her close, losing money they're pretending they have.
Even with the added income from the deliveries, things are still tight and he agrees to more and more as the time goes on. Things are going well, or as well as he can imagine, until suddenly it all starts to go wrong. Two men are arrested and three clubs close down, the DA on the news again, swearing that crime's going to stop and someone's going to pay. He starts being more careful, not playing the tables when he makes his drops.
He doesn't start worrying until the envelopes slow down, until middle management starts spending time walking the rails above the floor, eyes burning holes in the middle of his back.
"We think there's a problem."
He stops walking on his way back to the lockers, and the yellow lights pick out the shiny suit and a bright sunburn beneath thinning hair. He tugs off his ball cap and rubs a dirty hand through his sweaty hair. "A problem."
He remembers that Max was there and then he wasn't. He wonders if there was a problem with Max too. "With me?"
"That remains to be seen." He nods once and moves out of the shadowed corner, heading back toward the real world of offices and florescent lighting. "And we will see."
It's another few days before there's another envelope. The instructions are different, strange, and he wonders for a moment if maybe it's a test, or a trap. He takes it on faith because as far as he can tell the handwriting is the same, the paper the same and, besides, it's not like he has much choice. He follows the instructions, making his deliveries like usual. He tells Honey that he's always found it funny that people tell you to act normal right after they've done something to make you be abnormal, and she started talking about not thinking about elephants. Now he can't stop thinking about elephants and elephants in the room but it keeps his mind off what he's doing and maybe what it maybe means.
Nothing changes and he lets himself hope for a minute, wondering if maybe he can salvage something out of all of this. That lasts until the first rumors start floating - the DA's goons were out in full force to make an arrest and found themselves with handcuffs full of air, the location cleaned up and cleared out. The address is familiar and he can see it behind his eyes, written in sharp, dark handwriting. That fades rapidly as more news comes in when the midshift starts. Rumors become truth then legend as the world narrows down to the echoed words, filled with fear and awe.
"They blew up the Chicken Man last night."
The details make their way around the factory until everyone knows everything, though he's fairly certain only the smallest amount of it is close to true. He knows more of the truth than any of them, and he's not saying a word. Not yet. Not now. Not ever.
There's another envelope in his locker when his shift finishes and he opens it, nodding at the money. There's no note this time. He already knows what he's supposed to do.
It's like nothing he's ever seen, even though he's seen it a million times. Nothing stays the same and everything is made out of light and sound, sparkling like gems against the black sky, beaches looking gold in the moonlight. Honey is like a diamond at his side, face painted to put the city to shame. She looks beautiful and he stares at her as she laughs, dancing in high heels to the sounds of dealers and slot machines, barkers and bells ringing out in the night.
He takes her everywhere and shows her off, lets her see the city as much as the city sees her. He plies her with drinks and chips until her make-up looks as tired as he feels, until he starts to see the surface under the shine. They walk down the street like drunkards, leaning into each other. She stops and tilts her head back, streetlight spotlighting her like some sort of star, ready for a close-up or a solo. He tightens his grip on her hand and tugs her forward, catching her as stumbles, guiding her toward the sidewalk, the outlines of dark buildings falling over them.
She laughs, her giggle bursting the darkness like the flare of a lighter, and he pushes her into a doorway. "Come on, Honey. Just a little further. Got a line on a game you won't believe."
She laughs again and lets him lead her down another street, around another corner. The bright lights are behind them now, like the sun going down on a mirage, and he nods at the man by the door and guides Honey inside. The hallway lights flicker as he leads her deeper into the building, into the large warehouse space that echoes with the sound of her heels.
She looks around the empty room then frowns before looking back at him. There's no sign of the usual hidden games – no hostess, no hidden rooms, no music, no noise. "I don't get it?" There's a hint of fear in her voice and he thinks maybe she's lying. Maybe she does get it. Maybe she knows what he knows now, that she was using him, that he was her unwitting source, that she was the one giving the DA the information she stole from him. "What's going on?"
He shrugs as two men he doesn't know and won't recognize again come into the room. "You look real pretty, honey," is all he offers before he turns to leave, hearing the fear in her voice as she turns around and sees the men, as she calls after him as he walks, letting the warehouse doors close behind him.
He doesn't look back at the sounds. The screams and the shots and the explosions sound like a too loud action movie playing in a hotel room, not real at all. He keeps his head down, step by step closer to the hubbub of the boardwalk and a drink and another game, another chance to roll the dice.
He doesn't look back and behind him the flames light up the Atlantic City sky.