Blues from a Gun, chapter 8: Pink Moon

By Bryan Pedersen

he tropical sun was baking me to a crispy golden-brown. In the distance, bright blue waves lapped at the shore. Exotically colored birds squawked. Then a whisper.

“Nick.”

I had been set adrift, floating in that pleasant nexus between alertness and dreaming. “A hypnagogic state,” she later told me it was called. My mind drifted on a stream of memory as the breeze slipped over my chest. I felt the sticky-soft sand caking the soles of my feet, yet my thoughts clung to frozen city streets, fenced in by towering hunks of steel and glass, unable to let go. My body on the beach, my mind in the city, the disconnect was almost magical.

“Oh, Nick?”

Her hand on my arm pulled me to the surface. I cracked open an eye and through the glare of the midday sun saw Jenya looking down at me, a coy little grin on her face.

Nick, honey?” she said. “Miguel here would like to know if you’d care for another.”

I smiled and thanked him, said that I would, and soon Miguel returned with a couple more frozen and fruity rum drinks for me and my wife. She waited for him to leave before scolding me.

“Is there something wrong with your name?” she asked.

“No. Just my memory.”

“Don’t you like it?”

“I like it fine.”

“Because I picked it out especially for you. If I thought you didn’t like it I’d just die.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s fine, what?” she prompted.

“It’s fine, dear?”

“Thanks, but no. What’s my name? This is a test, stupid.”

“Are you sure it’s not a stupid test?”

“I’m waiting.”

I rolled onto my side and faced her, opened both my eyes fully and let them adjust to the light. I studied her face and then her trim little frame wrapped tightly in a very brief two-piece.

“Well?” Jenya asked.

“Indeed, I married very well.”

“Flattery is always appreciated, but does not get you extra credit. Now buckle up your chin strap, this is a test, Nick.”

“You are my lovely wife, Ms. Norah Charles,” I said. “Did I pass?”

“You did.”

“Can I go back to sleep?”

“You may.”

I took a sip of something more strawberry than rum and stretched back out on the lounge chair. I wanted to let it all go, wanted to forget about why Bobby had sent me there, wanted to relax and disappear.

This happened a few years back. It was our second day on the island. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the beech, letting people see that we were nothing special, just another harmless newlywed couple. Later that night, from the open window of our beachfront cabana, we watched the ocean’s slow waves. A midnight sky salted with stars was mirrored upon its surface.

“You know, Wex,” Jenya said, “If you pay close enough attention, life can be pretty good.”

“Take one of the whores with you,” Bobby had told me.

“I thought this was work.”

“Hell, son, ain’t no reason work can’t be fun.”

I was still fairly new at the job, pretty low on Bobby’s totem pole of lackeys and henchmen when he sent me off to that island for work. It was a fairly simple job, almost routine, yet tonight I can’t seem to get it out of my head.

Back then Bobby still wore a thick mustache. Most guys can’t pull off that look. It’d look foolish on me. But on Bobby, when he sported that iron grey brush over his top lip, it looked like it belonged there. With it he looked like a crooked cattle baron from an old western, the type of man whose massive operation squeezed out all the mom and pop farms on the range. And I think he knew that.

He had called me to his office to show me some pictures. Back then he was still playing the role of doting mentor, enjoyed making a production out of what my next assignment would be. This was the first time he was sending me out of the country.

“You’ll be going here,” he said pointing at a picture of a sandy white beach, bright green mountains in the distance. “Ile d’espoir. Pretty name, pretty place, ugly people.”

I held up one of the pictures, a photo filled with smiling island girls. “Ugly?”

“On the inside,” he said with a sneer. He never liked being challenged. “Don’t be so fuckin’ literal. A decade back that shitty little island didn’t get its own map dot. Then their junta chose to open their doors and shores to the rich refuse of the world, and now it’s one of the more scenic tax dodges and criminal sanctuaries the western hemisphere has to offer.”

“And I’ll…?”

“Be on your honeymoon. They still have a small tourism business. You’ll fit in fine.”

“What’s the job?”

“He’s the job,” Bobby said, sliding a picture of a pudgy and balding man toward me. “Their no extradition policy can stop governments from bringing creeps like him to justice, but it can’t keep them safe from harm.”

Bobby looked up from the photo and grinned at me. “And come this time next week, boy, you’re gonna be harm.”

Terrible line, but I didn’t groan. After awhile working for him you got used to statements like that. You learned to take them in stride.

Over breakfast Jenya said, “They have snorkel lessons.”

“Who do?”

“They do.” She took another bite before continuing. “They have these little shops on the piers that take you out and you get to see all sorts of tropical fish, these glorious creatures you’d otherwise never ever get to see. Learn all about their habitat, their diets, their likes and dislikes.”

“People do that?”

“They do. It’s very popular. They call it sea tourism.”

“Sea tourism, or see tourism? Because one seems redundant.”

“Can we do that today?”

“No.”

“But it’ll be fun. It’s a chance to broaden our horizons, learn something new. You know: fun.”

“You made it sound educational.”

“Educational can be fun.”

“I’ve got work to do.”

“You’ve got all week.”

“Sorry.”

“Charlie,” she began.

“Nick,” I corrected her.

“Whatever. Do you know why I came here with you?”

“Because you were paid to?”

“No, I came because it sounded like fun.”

“That’s weird. I thought it was because of the large sum of cash you were given.”

“Nope. That was merely a gift.”

“Was it?”

“It was. A gift due to the fact that you value my friendship so very much.”

“Jen.”

“Norah,” she corrected me.

“Whatever. You may not be here for work. Which, I have to say, is a bit surprising to find out. But I still have a job to do.”

“Fine.”

“However, I suppose some newlyweds do find time on their honeymoons for separate activities. So if you really want to…”

“You mean it?” she said, her eyes lighting up with possibility.

“I do.”

She thought about it for a moment, then said, “No. It wouldn’t look right. Someone might get suspicious.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep. So, what are we doing today?”

*

Bobby never tells me why. He gives me the information he feels I need, often just the target’s name and a picture or two, and I do the job.

That time was no different. Bobby didn’t say: this is Ron Thayer, the man who looted his company’s retirement fund for millions of dollars. He didn’t tell me about the workers that lost their jobs, their savings and their investments due to the accounting practices of this man and his cronies. But he didn’t have to. It’d been all over the news for the last month.

It almost got lost in the shuffle with Enron and the others, another in a wave of CEOs bilking the people below them in order to live a life far more extravagant than most of us can imagine. But two things kept Ron Thayer’s name from fading away in the tempest of populist outrage. One, he disappeared right before his trial. And two, he took his assistant with him, an attractive young man named Antonio Reyes.

*

The nights on the island were gorgeous. Gentle breezes mixed the sounds of the splashing surf with the calls of distant, nocturnal birds. There were no sirens, no car alarms, no loud upstairs neighbors, only peace. In the morning the sun rose from the water, early and bright, smoothing the crisp edge from the air. Its light brought more birds, more trills and coos in the distance, but it was still the language of relaxation tapes unspooled and played out in real time.

The cabanas didn’t come with alarm clocks and I doubt any of the staff would’ve known how to handle a request for a wake-up call. In Ile d’espoir you either woke with the sun or you lowered the blinds, rolled over, and slept until you had your fill. So it’s easy to imagine how meeting someone for lunch had its difficulties.

Our table was on the veranda out front and we enjoyed a leisurely meal beneath our parasol’s shade and the high noon sun. The food was good, and the weather perfect, so the wait wasn’t a problem.

At least an hour passed before our calm was interrupted by a man I had previously only spoken to over the phone.

“Allo! You are Nick? Yes?” Both his accent and zeal were thick. “Ha! But I know you must be Nick because over the phone you told me how your wife was an American fox with thick black hair and this is surely her. I am right again, yes?”

“You are so very right, thank you” Jenya said, extending a hand to him. “Please, sit.”

“Ah, yes. Some men, with the women, are indeed fortunate.”

“Some men know where to shop,” I said.

“Oh!” Otto laughed heartily and turned back to Jenya. “He is bad, yes? So bad, your Nick.”

“I’m still working on him,” she said.

“And yet if you ever tire of the project, you come to Otto, yes? I am not so bad. Not so much work. Still quite fun.”

He ordered some food and we ordered a few more drinks and made with the small talk. Between bites Otto shared his dream of starting up his own internet business. It’s what brought him to the island.

“That is the beauty of computers today, no? It does not matter where you are anymore, for the internet, it connects us all. As a young man I learn this, so I save my money and I wait, and when the time was right I moved from the frigid Fatherland to this beautiful oasis.”

He told us more, of a youth spent behind The Wall, of how it felt to turn on his TV and watch sledgehammers and bare hands tear it down. After some time Jenya rose to use the bathroom. Otto stood with her, doffed his hat to reveal a head of thick and curly red hair, and wished her a speedy return. When he sat back down he said, “And now the men talk the business, yes?”

I agreed and passed him a piece of plastic the size of a credit card.

“Ah-ha. Indeed. Very good,” he said. Then he leaned closer and asked in a soft voice, “The Brugemore?”

“Correct.”

He nodded and studied the card some more.

“Is there a problem?”

“No, no problem, Mister Nick. No problem at all. But it will take some time.”

“How much time.”

“Not much, but with such a fine hotel—“

“On the phone you said—“

“No, no, no need to worry. Do not worry. I speak of hours, not days. Twelve hours at the most. This evening at the latest. I hope that is still acceptable.”

I told him it’d be fine and watched him tuck the card into his pocket as Jenya returned to her seat.

“And now, for you, I give my card.” Otto reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a business card with his name, number and a slogan.

I couldn’t suppress a grin and neither could Jenya when I showed it to her.

“You laugh,” Otto said. “Is it the slogan that makes you laugh?”

“No,” Jenya tried to assure him. “It’s good.”

On the card, below his name, rather than the name of his business or any explanation of the work he performed was printed two simple words: World Mover.

“I chose that because it is what I offer people. It is what this new age of computers and internet gives to us, a freedom of movement, of communication. I am a testament to that my very self,” he said, waving his pink sunburned arms around to encompass the beach behind him.

“Yes, I get that,” Jenya said. “I like it.”

“Ah, so.” He looked even more crestfallen.

“I think it’s kind of romantic,” she said. “Your work brings people together.”

“Yes, that it does.” Otto sighed. “But then it is my name that made the two of you to giggle.”

“I don’t giggle,” I said.

“Well,” Jenya admitted. “Is that really your name? Otto Bonn?”

“Indeed, it was another reason I chose to leave Germany and cross the globe for the starting of my business.”

“It’s fine, Otto,” Jenya said. “Really.”

“My parents, they think they are comedians,” he said, but then shook his head and smiled once more. “German comedians, this is their idea of clever. But why dwell? We are here in the sun and the sand, and our lives remain what we make of them. Each day we should celebrate.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” she said, lifting her glass in a brief toast.

“And now, you two lovely American people, what do you have planned for today?”

“We haven’t decided,” Jenya said. “Any suggestions?”

“I have my work to do, yes,” Otto said. “But you two, I must recommend, if you have not yet had the pleasure, do try the snorkeling lessons.”

I cannot explain how quickly Jenya’s head whipped around to me.

“Oh, then you haven’t yet!” Otto exclaimed. “But you must! It is amazing! So astounding! A world like you have never before seen, hidden right below the surface of the water. Promise me you will give it a look.”

So I did. I promised Otto we’d go and that afternoon we did just that. A boat took us around the far edge of the island, away from the huts and crowds and let a group of us slip down into the clear blue water.

Jenya dove under first. She surfaced after a minute, turned to me, and with a bright smile on her face said, “Look at all the pretties! Come on, get in here.”

I’ve had worse afternoons.

For dinner that night we chose a different restaurant, one with wooden tables and chairs scattered along the pier, tiny white candles dotting each one. Jenya ordered a bottle of fancy French wine and passed the time taking sips and buttering dinner rolls for us to share.

When Otto arrived she poured a glass for him.

“Ah, this is French, yes?” he said after a taste.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got a problem with France, Otto,” Jenya said.

“Oh, no. I am not that sort of German, no. The French, I like their cheese, their wine, their pastry,” he turned to me and arched a bushy eyebrow. “And very much also their women, yes? No, I do not dislike the French.”

We dined under the stars and listened to Otto as he told stories of growing up in a divided country. He somehow made it sound awful yet hilarious and endearing at the same time. When we stood to go he kissed Jenya once on each cheek and told her to keep working on me, then shook my hand firmly. In his chubby palm was the plastic card I had given him earlier.

Instead of going directly back to our cabana I led Jenya down the far path. It was nice to see other corners of the little island village lit up at night. Far different than our city home with its towering streetlights and neon signs, the light here didn’t so much flood the darkness as poke tiny holes in it. We walked along a stone path bordered by boxed candles that someone must be paid to light each night at sundown. Many of the huts and cabanas were already lit from within, flickering glows causing their shadows to dance erratically across the walls.

Our path took us past a large white hotel with a reflecting pool in front and one of the only paved driveways on the island arcing up to it. A tasteful sign carved from a block of white stone and lit in amber read The Brugemore.

When we returned to our own little cabana Jenya grabbed another bottle of wine and a large blanket and we sat out front on the sand, a few feet back from where the surf rose to caress the shore. We really didn’t drink that much, only a few sips now and again. The bottle served more as something to set between us as the waves rolled in.

“I really like it here,” she said. “It’s so much less than I expected.”

I took another sip. “Less?”

“I had expected it to be full of loud and tacky touristy things. I thought we were off to spend a week in Margarittaville. But this, it’s all so peaceful. So relaxing and… I can feel my soul exhaling.”

“It is nice.”

Jenya rain her fingers through her hair and shook her head. Her teeth sparkled from between parted, grinning lips. “I expected it to be a Jimmy Buffet song, instead it’s Nick Drake.”

We sat there with the waves and the silence, and after awhile Jenya rose to her feet, slipped off her sandals, and stepped into the water. The ocean rose up her slender legs, its spray misting her torso. Her thin white sarong dampened and clung to her thighs, became transparent and revealed the tiny bikini briefs beneath.

Take a whore with you, Bobby had said, and that’s how I get away with doing this. Frank taught me that I can’t risk having close friends or real love. I’ve seen how they end up getting used against you, how they end up getting hurt. I wouldn’t risk that with Stacy, and I try my best to keep from putting Jenya in that position. As far as Bobby knows, she’s nothing more than a pretty girl I pay for sex. It’s not hard to convince him of that, I’m pretty sure our company is where most of her clients come from. But still.

When she tired of the ocean’s slow dance we went inside. Her tank top clung to her curves and her bare feet sprinkled the floor with sand as she crossed over to the queen-sized bed. I couldn’t help watching as the large white bed in the back of the room engulfed her tiny, tanned frame. I couldn’t help wanting.

Then I stretched out on the couch.

“Charlie,” she called out after a minute.

“Yeah?”

“You could… I mean, the bed’s way more comfortable.” I looked back and saw her sitting up. Sheet draped over one shoulder, her arm extended out to the light switch.

“I’m sure it is.”

“And its way big, too. It’d be okay if you wanted to, you know…”

“This is better.”

“You’re sure?”

“Good night, Jen.”

“Good night, Charlie,” she said, and switched off the light.

It’s something I figured out a while back. What I can get away with when it comes to women is a choice between either sex or friendship. If I keep Bobby thinking Jenya’s just someone I sleep with, she’ll be fine. And if I keep my hands to myself, keep her at a distance; I should be fine, too.

So that’s what I do.

*

A couple of days passed. The weather remained beautiful, the pace slow. One lunch we spent on a tiled deck beneath a canopy of thick leafy vines, our table dappled by the sunlight that poked through. Across the way sat Ron Thayer and Antonio Reyes. Ron looked different than he had in the newspaper photos that appeared when the scandal first broke. In those he was pale and paunchy with huge bags below his eyes. In the restaurant that day, the bags were still there, but he was leaner and tan. He looked vivid, laughing with his lover, holding hands casually, no cares, no worries.

It was later that night when I slipped out into the dark, followed the candle-lit trail back to The Brugemore. My cargo pants had pockets for what I needed; my shirt snug enough to allow freedom of movement, dark enough to help me slip into the background of the night.

I moved quickly. First setting off his car alarm, then using the keycard Otto coded for me to slip inside. I did what I had to do and was waiting calmly when Ron returned to his suite after attending to his car in the parking lot.

At first, he didn’t see me. I let him walk past, back to the bedroom where he had been. I followed quietly behind as he peeled of his night shirt and stepped out of his shorts.

The room was still dark. He had left the light off so as to not disturb Antonio, so it took a moment for him to realize something was wrong.

When he jumped out of the bed I tapped the light switch and a soft-focused glow filled the room. Ron was in shock, standing naked beside his bed, staring at Antonio’s body, then me, back and forth again. He couldn’t make up his mind which was worse.

Shock set in as he dripped onto the floor, his torso painted red and sticky with Antonio’s blood. With the light now on Ron could see the blood pooled in the bed, a red so dark it was nearly black. It was too much for him to take so he crumbled, sunk to the floor.

After some time spent rocking back and forth he warbled out an, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so, su-su-sorry.” He didn’t look at me or Antonio so I’m still not sure which of us he was saying it to.

I had set aside the knife. A thin, black nine-millimeter was in my right hand, pointed at him to keep him where he was. Looking at him, it probably wasn’t necessary. In my left I flipped open a cell phone and pressed the only number programmed into it. After one ring, a voice came through the speaker. I held it out for Ron to hear.

“Ronald, old pal! How the hell are you?” Bobby said in his slight drawl.

Ron couldn’t answer, he was too busy crying.

“I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re there listening or our friend wouldn’t have bothered calling me. Now pay attention to what I have to say and we’ll get this over with real quick. First off, and I cannot stress this enough, Ronald, you do not fuck with the company. Do you hear me?”

Again, Ron didn’t answer. All he did was sob a little harder and curl up a little tighter, his knees tucking into his chest.

“Ho-ly shit. I can hear you crying from here, you little girl. Did you really love that fancy spic?” Bobby made sure his laugh was loud enough to be heard over the phone. “You poor, dumb, queer little bastard. What exactly did you think was gonna happen?”

At this point I wasn’t sure if Ron was still listening.

But I was.

“So this is what you get,” Bobby said. “And now, you pay.”

I think Ron expected a bullet but instead I set the phone down and reached into a pocket, pulled out an envelope, and tossed it on the floor between us.

“You wanna live, you gotta pay. That’s how it works from now on. The first of every month,” Bobby said. “Remember that. In that envelope you’ll find an amount and an account number. Now you memorize those, Ronald. If a deposit ever shows up a day late or a dollar short our mutual friend here will find you again. Do try and be a little smarter this time.”

Then a click and Bobby was gone. Ron looked up, eyes full of tears. He stared at my gun almost as if he wanted it. But that wasn’t my job.

Outside, it was another night on the island; another big and bright moon glimmered down from above. I returned to our cabana but before I went inside I walked out to the beach. At the water’s edge I didn’t bother stopping, kept going out into the ocean. As the waves reached my waist I stripped off my shirt and dunked it into the water before me, kept on walking. I twisted the shirt tight in my grip, tried to wring the blood from it, and walked out some more.

When the water rose to my neck the current started tugging at me, offering to take me out even further, show me more than pretty fish, offering up a depth and calm I hadn’t known. It was tempting. I stopped, dipped my head back, let the salty water wash over my face. It stung my eyes and I let go of my shirt, felt the ocean pull it away, dragging it out to sea, and I thought about my options.

Didn’t really care for any of them.

*

There was nothing in the news about Antonio’s death. That wasn’t a surprise. There’d be no reason Ron would want any of that getting out, no reason the island’s government would want to tarnish their tropical Eden image.

A few weeks later I asked Frank what he thought of it. I asked him about what Bobby had said on the phone, if Bobby had set it up that way to make sure I heard the threat. If it was some sort of lesson.

“I don’t know,” Frank shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“Should I be worried?”

“Sure. Why not? Worry is good. It’s caution’s first step.”

“So I should worry.”

“Of course you should,” he said. “But no more than I do.”

“Really?” It surprised me to think that this stoic old pro thought about these things, too. “You?”

“It is what it is, Charlie.”

“Is it?”

“Yep, even when it isn’t.”

*

That’s the lesson I can’t shake. It’s what I’m thinking about as the elevator shuttles me back up to my previously empty apartment. It’s what I’m pondering as the doors part to reveal my home and the frightened blonde girl perched on my couch.

Her head whips around, still allergic to guys sneaking up behind her.

“Hi,” Allie says in soft voice. “Welcome back.”

I set the plastic take-out bag down on the coffee table in front of her and she starts arranging the boxes. Plastic forks and sodas in Styrofoam cups delineate our place settings.

“Thanks,” she says and sticks a straw into her mouth, takes a drink.

I watch her open a container and start to eat, but I’m not hungry. I’m still thinking about all those lessons Bobby’s taught me over the years, all the advice Frank’s given me, and how despite all of it I haven’t learned a thing.


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