A disbarred lawyer and an ex-arsonist cross paths and find themselves organizing an elaborate real estate scam to bilk a shady rich speculator out of twenty million dollars. The sting is personal for ex-arsonist Stan and for a woman named Vee, who plays an essential role in the caper. Glen, the narrator and former lawyer, finds himself at first just along for the money. Eventually, as bonds deepen among the conspirators, Glen too discovers he has a lot more at stake than simply the loot.
This cast of lively eccentrics discovers along the way that getting to the big payoff might just be more scary fun than the monetary prize itself.
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Paul Di Filippo sold his first story in 1977. Since then, he has written and published over two hundred more, as well as several novels, amounting to roughly thirty-five books. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his partner, Deborah Newton.
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Back in the good old, bad old days, I used to drive a Porsche Cayman, Black Edition. Once the dealer got it tricked out to my specs, it had cost me seventy thousand. I loved that car like the daughter I never had (and now probably never would have). The interior was like sitting cozy in God's palm. Once, I took it to a track and got it up to 160. There was a stretch of highway on the coast where I'd regularly break 120. Ghent, Goolsbee & Saikiri, my employers, even paid my speeding tickets.
But that car was long gone, auctioned off by court order, along with all my other possessions of any value, to repay at least some bare pittance to the clients I had bilked. All my savings accounts, IRAs, stocks, and other financial instruments and investments had been liquidated as well. I had gone into prison with a net worth approximating zero. And even then, my victims felt I hadn't been punished enough. Bernie Madoff, c'est moi — a pint-size version, anyway. I lost track of exactly how much I stole — the heroin was partly responsible for my slovenly illicit bookkeeping — but it was in the vicinity of only five or six million — nothing like Bernie's tab of eighteen billion or so.
In any case, when I got out of prison (curing my drug habit almost made that hellish stay worth it), I entered a halfway house as a penniless penitent. The counselors tried to fix me up with one dead-ass job after another, but I bailed on or got fired from all of them. It wasn't that I thought such work beneath me. Most of the companies the counselors placed me with provided valuable or at least not-harmful things and services, and their employees labored harder and more honestly than I ever had at GG&S. No, I just couldn't stand the contrast between my old life and this new one. Nor did I enjoy, as the break-room talk turned personal, sharing my fall from fortune with all these regular joes and janes.
They never got mad or judgmental with me over what I had done.
It was always pity I saw in their eyes. For I had thrown my life away, along with all its opportunities and rewards and privileges that they would never know.
They were right, of course, and I just couldn't take knowing they were right.
When it came time for my transition out of the halfway house, I had to meet for the umpteenth time with Anton Paget, my first and current parole officer.
Paget was no bleeding heart. About ten years older than me, he reminded me of a dwarf out of some fantasy movie, right down to the beard dense as a Texas mesquite thicket. He favored work boots, cargo shorts, and madras patch shirts that could make your eyes bleed. During ten years at this job, he had handled enough poor slobs like me not to be overoptimistic about the success rate of his clients.
"McClinton, you are a grade-A fuck-up."
"How, exactly, do you plan to reintegrate yourself back into society as a useful citizen if you can't even slap a hamburger together?"
"I do not wish to reintegrate, sir. I just want to live in isolation like a gut-shot animal and lick my wounds until I finally expire and am no longer a burden on society."
Paget restrained a grin. "Highly inspirational. Maybe we can get you a speaking gig at the local high schools. 'Scared Shiftless.'" His eyes narrowed. "Seriously, how do you intend to support yourself?"
"I have a relative who will take me in, at least until I can piece together what I want to do. My uncle, Ralph Sickert."
Paget needlessly consulted some forms — only to avoid holding my gaze, I suspected. "Your parents are both gone, correct?"
My father, Aaron, had died of an aneurysm while I was still a young, high-flying legal eagle. But my mother, Christina, had died while I was in prison, her chronic illnesses no doubt aggravated by my fall from grace. I couldn't even get a day pass to attend her funeral.
"This Uncle Ralph — he's got a stable lifestyle? Good home? Willing to let you coast on his nickel?"
"He's retired, and he owns his own place. He says he could use my company."
"Well, we'll have to make a site inspection, but tentatively it sounds okay."
Leaving the parole office, I took a crosstown bus to Uncle Ralph's house and got busy.
What I hadn't told Paget was that Ralph Sickert was a stooper. That's the guy who picks up intact discarded tickets, looking for inadvertently abandoned winners. It's about as low as you can descend in the racetrack pecking order. So Uncle Ralph was gone from his modest house from sunup till late at night, coming back just to eat a little junk food and sleep before starting the next day all over again.
Ralph had married my mother's sister, Gillian. He had always been a devil-may-care playboy type who drove my sober and sedate aunt to distraction with his wild ways. But he had provided a good living for himself and his wife, thanks to his skills as an old-school chef, working at various high-end steak houses around the state, the kind of place that focused more on portion size than quality of the beef. When Aunt Gillian died, Ralph — left improvidently with no savings but with a free and clear deed to his house — retired on a decent Social Security check. That was when he developed a problem with the horses. He blew most of his check on the ponies within a few days after it hit his account. And for the rest of the month, he became a stooper — an ignoble profession at best.
But Uncle Ralph didn't seem to mind. Anything to stay active at the place where he felt most at home.
Consequently, Ralph's actual home looked as if the tenant had died a year ago and the corpse still hadn't been discovered. There were cobwebs older than my sentencing date, and the dust bunnies had mutated into jackalopes. The kitchen was piled high with moldy take-out containers, so that the place looked like the tomb of a pharaoh with an addiction to KFC and Subway.
That day, I spent a solid eight hours cleaning, until about ten p.m., when I heard Uncle Ralph's tired old Impala pull into the driveway.
Hollowed out by his current schedule, lifestyle, and obsessions, the big man I recalled from my youth was now a beaten seventy-two-year-old washout. He didn't look particularly surprised to see me after so long. Neither welcoming nor rejecting, but neutrally curious, he listened to me explain what I needed from him.
"So you'll promise to be here all day this first time when the social worker is going to come by? And you'll make out like you're a quiet old shut-in who just can't wait for his nephew to move in?"
"Sure. So long as you can come up with a hundred dollars. That's what I make on a good day at the track." Ralph suddenly had a suspicious look. "Where you gonna get a hundred bucks from if you don't have a job?"
"Don't you worry about that," I said. "Listen, I gotta run now, to beat the curfew at the residence."
As I trotted down the sidewalk, Ralph called out, "Glen! Your mother always said right up to the end that you were a good boy!"
That was the first time I cried since my life went pear-shaped.
So, to put everything in a very small nutshell, the inspection went fine, the Department of Corrections approved, and for the past year now had I lived with Uncle Ralph. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I kept the place reasonably clean and saw that he ate better. He gave me a roof over my head, and a stable address where Anton Paget could regularly come and see I was not violating any terms of my parole, despite my slackerly lack of ambition.
And I even got the use of a car. Not a Porsche, but it was wheels.
Uncle Ralph's Impala hailed from the mythic year of 2002 — precisely the model year that logged the most owner complaints. Something was always going wrong with it, and it fell to me to get the beast repaired.
It was only fair. I had access to the car pretty much all day. In the mornings, I would drop Uncle Ralph off at the track. I used to have to collect him, too. But over the past few months, he had been getting a ride from a lady friend his own age. Her name was Suzy Lam, and she resembled every plump Chinese auntie I had ever seen buying lottery tickets at the Asian markets. She could swear like a Marine drill instructor and smoked off-brand cigarettes by the carton. Suzy was just as hooked on the horses as Ralph, and apparently they had hit it off right from their first encounter. That meet-up occurred when Ralph, unbending after snatching a ticket from the filthy pavement, knocked the plastic cup of beer right out of Suzy's hand. It splashed a bystander, whom she dissuaded from punching Ralph by reeling off a gale of profanity in her tobacco-cured rasp. By the time she consumed the last dregs of the replacement beer my uncle had bought her, they were a couple.
I had a vague hunch that Suzy might be thinking about moving in with Ralph, in which case I would be a definite third wheel, forced to find alternative housing. But with my usual lack of interest in my own life, I couldn't get too worked up about the prospect until it happened.
On the morning of the August day that was to change my life, the Impala refused to start. Ralph hailed Suzy for a ride to the track, and a call to my regular garage got the balky machine hauled off. Later, I got the diagnosis: ignition shot. Two hundred and fifty for the repairs.
I went down to the basement. Built in the 1940s, Ralph's house featured a working cellar fireplace. He stubbornly continued to burn paper trash there now and again — mostly nonwinning tickets he carted home to sort — just as if he were living in some bygone decade before pollution laws.
Scraping aside the ashes, I uncovered the loose bricks. I worked them out of place, getting my fingers all sooty, and reached into the cavity for the little fireproof SentrySafe, about the size of a flat-wrench box. I unlocked it by spinning the three mechanical reels to the proper combination.
Inside were some two hundred gold Panda coins, thirty grams each, issued by the Chinese government. At current market value, each coin was worth about thirteen hundred dollars, although the guy I regularly sold them to, a shady coin dealer named Bert Deluca, would give me only a thousand apiece. The discount was consideration for his keeping the transactions unrecorded. So the total contents of the chest were worth somewhere between two hundred thousand and a quarter of a million dollars.
Not too many lawyers had an actual golden parachute — especially a lawyer deemed bankrupt by every court in the land.
Returning home in the repaired Impala, I had occasion to think about my future. Converting the latest gold Panda had turned my thoughts in that direction. Minus the garage guy's share, the remaining cash from the thousand that Deluca had given me weighed heavily in my pocket. Once, that sum would have represented a not particularly extravagant night on the town, a few bottles of good champagne, and some C-notes tucked into the waistband of a stripper's thong. Now it felt like one more bloody slice out of a dwindling legacy. I would piss the money away on boring necessities, maybe springing for something as wild as a movie ticket and a few happy-hour drinks at Danny's Cavern. This was a train of thought that always left me feeling numb, angry, confused, and helpless.
After being permanently disbarred, I could do nothing with all my expensive legal education and years of experience at GG&S. To all my old contacts, the back-slapping guys I had schmoozed and boozed with, I was radioactive waste. I had given up junk, and confronting myself in the mirror each morning, I felt anew, with genuine surprise, that the craving had truly and completely left my bones. So I couldn't even dream my time away in an opiate haze. No other pursuit really appealed to me. Since my teenage years, I had never had a predilection for anything but making as much easy money as fast as I could, and had chosen law school as the quickest route to that goal. And then I had chosen larceny as an even faster path. I supposed I could force myself to adapt to some new and decent-paying career. Pick up some fresh skills. Job training, sure. A new degree in bleeding-heart social work, maybe. Tractor-trailer driving school. Although, with my criminal record, the prospect of someone hiring me was no sure thing. Maybe I could buy into a glamorous and lucrative Dairy Queen franchise. But no likely alternative career was going to get me back into the stratosphere of one-percenter wealth and luxury that I had formerly inhabited.
A quarter-million dollars in gold. It sure sounded like a lot, even for someone who had boosted five million — until you realized that the stash was all there was or would ever be. That sum worked out to twenty-five K a year for ten years — a decade at chump wages.
My trapped mind ran down familiar channels, like a rat trying to earn some science cheese. Maybe I should think about relocating to a different country after my parole ended. Some stable, peaceful tropical place where life was easy and expenses were a fraction of what they were here. Beautiful half-naked native girls serving exotic drinks while I lolled in a hammock, shaded by palm trees. But did any such place actually exist anymore in this crazy, dangerous world? And what would such a backwater offer in the way of sophisticated pleasures that wouldn't get stale after the hundredth go-round?
I put the Impala in park and shut off the engine. Walking to the front door of Ralph's house — I refused to think of it as mine; that would be just too depressing — down the cracked pavement whose summer-strengthened weeds I kept meaning to grub up, I continued uselessly going over my limited options. It was like riding a carousel past the same unreachable brass ring that gleamed just beyond my too-short child's arms.
Still distracted, I had my key in the lock when a big, heavy hand dropped onto my shoulder from behind, even though I had heard no one approaching.
My first thought was Anton Paget. He'd been spying on me in his sneaky parole-officer way and saw me cash in that Panda, and now I was royally fucked.
My second thought was that a pizza-delivery guy got shot a block away from here only a week ago.
My third thought was that I should slowly turn around in a nonthreatening manner and find out who this was.
Who it was, was the mook. The guy whose life I had saved back in December, over half a year ago.
But today he didn't look so mookish, and I began to form a new, more respectful opinion of him that would deepen with time.
No longer slumped dead in the driver's seat, and standing much too close inside my personal space, he proved to be a few inches taller than I. He had a lot of muscle on him, and some comfortable fat around the gut. Wherever he had been for the eight months since his overdose, it probably hadn't included the Fashion Institute of Technology. The electric-blue silk shirt, featuring various images of cavorting African wildlife, showed off even more chest foliage than his winter sweater had. He had dialed back the jewelry to a single silver Italian horn on a silver chain around his neck, but the decorative cornicello was as big as my middle finger. His sleek brown pants were of some form-hugging synthetic that displayed his topography in more lurid detail than if he had worn one of those Speedo marble bags. Brown tasseled loafers, sans socks, completed the ensemble.
Only after I had taken all this in, with the stranger's hairy paw still draped familiarly on my shoulder, did I notice that he was smiling, putting me vaguely in mind of a snarling grizzly. Okay, that was supposed to make me feel a tad more reassured about his innocent intentions.
"I'm Stan Hasso," he said, pushing a shaggy brown lock off his forehead as if to reveal a confirmatory trademark. "You're Glen McClinton, and you saved my fucking life."
"Um, yes, that would appear to be correct. No big deal."
The ursine face darkened. "Whatta you mean, 'no big deal'? It was a huge fucking deal! For me, anyhow, it sure was!"
I tried to back straight through the closed door. "Yes, of course," I stammered. "Saving someone's life is a very big deal! I just meant, it was, uh, no particular burden on me. No obligations. Happy to do it. Any old time."
Excerpted from "The Big Get-Even"
Copyright © 2018 Paul Di Filippo.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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