By Jim Cort

The first thing I did when I got out of the joint was go get my burglar tools. I had wrapped them in a piece of plastic tarp and stowed them behind a drainpipe in an alley where nobody ever goes. They were all still there — the lock picks, the bumper keys, the pry bar — everything. Now that I was out, I wanted them a little closer at hand.

The second thing I did was drop by Dewey's for a beer.

Dewey himself was behind the bar. "Eddie Tinker," he said, "long time no see. I heard you was inside."

"I was."

"Well, what are you doing — " He stopped and gave me a look. "Hey, you didn't crash out, did you? I can't have you around here if you're hot."

"Naw. It's cool. I got good behavior."

He snorted. "Good behavior? You?"

I sipped my beer. "That's what they tell me. You seen Jimmy around?"

"Yeah, he was here couple weeks ago."

"He got out just before I did."

"I ain't seen him lately." Dewey leaned closer, "You know, Fanelli's out, too. He's been out for a while."

I took another swallow of beer. Suddenly it didn't taste so good. "Yeah, I know."

"He was asking about Jimmy. He was asking about you, too."

Eighteen months ago Jimmy Todd, Jake Fanelli and me were ripping off a warehouse full of furs on Logan Street. Jake stayed lookout in the truck and Jimmy and me lugged the furs out and loaded them up. The warehouse had a silent alarm nobody knew anything about and the squad cars showed up before we were half done. The two of us inside managed to beat it out the back, but the cops nailed Jake, truck, furs and everything.

They didn't have to sweat him very long before he gave us up. They promised him a sweet deal, said he wasn't in as deep, since he'd just been driving the truck. For all I know they promised him he'd be Pope some day. Jake wound up with six months county time. Me and Jimmy got two years in Rahway.

Dewey said, "That was tough break, him ratting you out."

"Let's just skip it, all right?"

"Yeah, sure."

"So," I said, staring into my beer, "anything going down?"

Dewey snorted again. "Good behavior, right."

I shrugged. "A guy's gotta eat."

"Norm Krumwalz is putting something together — three guys and a driver."

There were two schools of thought about Norm Krumwalz. Some people thought he was a genius. He was always full of big schemes about million dollar jobs. He was always spinning out these elaborate plans. A lot of people were impressed by that.

Me, I thought he was a jerk. He made up these complicated jobs to convince himself he was smart. He made everything harder than it had to be. Most of these schemes never got out of the starting gate. Those that did fell apart in the middle of the job.

But Norm was a good talker. What he lacked in meat and potatoes, he made up for with style. He could almost always talk someone into joining his crew.

But not me. I told Dewey, "Thanks, I'll pass."

"Yeah, well, now you're in circulation again, I'll keep you in mind. Where can I reach you?"

"I got a job washing dishes over the Kanton Kitchen. If I'm not there you can leave a message with Sammy Wong." Actually, I didn't have a job there. I paid Sammy Wong twenty dollars a week to say I had a job there, but Dewey didn't have to know that. Sammy was an enterprising guy. He had no objection to lying to parole officers. What he objected to was lying for nothing.

A few days later I ran into Jake Fanelli in the men's room at Dewey's. I came in to take a leak and there he was washing his hands at the sink. I said, "Hiya, Jake."

He jumped like I'd set off a bomb, and splashed water all over the mirror. "Hey, Eddie," he stammered, "How ya doin'? How's the boy?" Jake always talked like that when he was nervous, like you were his long-lost brother or something. "I heard you was out."

"Same here."

"So...uh...How ya doin'?"

"Doin' all right. Looking around, you know?"

He said, "Yeah," and stared at the floor for a long moment. Then it came busting out of him. "Listen, I hope you're not — I mean on account of what I — They were leanin' on me real hard, Eddie. I had to do somethin'."

When they first put me in Rahway, I used to dream about cutting Jake's liver out with a dull knife. I'd never been inside before, and I wasn't prepared. Guys who'd been were always telling you it really sucks, but when it's you in there, you realize that it really, really sucks. I had a couple of rotten months before I got hold of myself and started using my brains. And during those months, I thought about the guy that put me there, and what I was going to do to him when I got out.

And then one day I discovered I didn't give a crap anymore. It surprised me, but I'd been so busy learning the angles and working them, that I had no time to think about Jake. When I finally did think about him, he was nothing. It was like he shrank down to the size of a bug; he just wasn't important.

Jimmy Todd never got to that point, and I couldn't convince him to drop it. He was still plenty pissed when he got sprung a few weeks before I did. Me, I just wanted to forget the whole thing.

I said, "Take it easy Jake. Forget it. You did what you had to do."

"Yeah, that's right. I had to do it. You understand that, right, Eddie? It wasn't nothin' personal, you know."

"Yeah, all right, Jake. Just let it go. Life's too short."

He stiffened. "What's that mean? Whose life?"

The guy had nerves like Fourth of July sparklers. "Calm down, Jake. Me and you are OK. I got no problem with you."

"Yeah, thanks. I'm a little — I been having a hell of a time. Nobody will work with me. It's like I got leprosy or somethin'. Nobody says anything, but I can see them giving me the hairy eyeball. Everything dries up when I come along. I got a hard time making eatin' money."

He sounded surprised, which surprised me. "That's rough," I said. "Say, have you run into Jimmy?"

"No, why should I?"

"Dewey said you'd been asking about him and I thought maybe — "

"Yeah, well I ain't seen him." He reached to get a paper towel, and his jacket rode up. I saw the butt of a revolver sticking out of his waistband.

He dried his hands and tossed the paper towel in the can. He sidled past me and headed toward the door. "I'm glad there's no hard feelings. Like you said, I just done what I had to do. You probably woulda did the same thing, right?"

I wouldn't have, but I didn't tell him that.

I checked at all of Jimmy's old haunts, but no one had seen him in at least a week. Finally I dropped by his apartment to talk to his wife Ida. She was in her kitchen, feeding oatmeal to the baby. The baby didn't seem to like it much. Two-year-old James Jr. was on the floor underfoot. I had brought him a toy truck and he was crawling around on the floor playing with it.

"Yeah, he was pretty angry when he get out," Ida said. "I tried to tell him it wasn't no good, but he just wouldn't listen." She wiped the cereal off the baby's face with a napkin and tried another spoonful. "I think it was 'count of his pride. I think it hurt his pride that someone would do that to him."

"Turn snitch," I said.

"Yeah, it was like a insult."

An insult. Yeah, that sounded about right. I stood up, careful not to step on James Jr. "So, Jimmy hasn't been around?"

Ida was burping the baby now, holding him against her skinny chest. "That's right. It must be a week at least."

"Was he working?" I don't know why I was so interested. Jimmy was a big boy. He could take care of himself. Seeing that gun had done something to me. I don't like guns. I never use them. Guys that carry guns make me nervous. Nervous guys that carry guns, like Jake Fanelli, make me really nervous.

"I don't think he was on a job," said Ida. "He always told me when he was. He just got a phone call and left the house one night."

"Who was the call from?"

"He never told me. Just up and left. What's going on, Eddie?"

"I don't know, Ida, but I'm sure it'll be OK. Jimmy'll be back soon with a fistful of cash and a big story to tell."

But I was starting not to believe that.

I left Ida's apartment, went down the stairs and stepped outside. It was dark, and someone was standing in a doorway across the street. He ducked around the corner when he saw me. I couldn't be sure, but it kind of looked like Jake Fanelli.

The next few days, I did see Jake. I saw a lot of him. I'd be in a booth at the Elite Diner having a BLT, and he'd be standing by Porkpie Bennie's newstand reading a magazine. He'd be trying to look like he wasn't watching me, but that's what he was doing. Or I'd be drinking a beer in Dewey's and Jake would just happen to show up and sit at the bar. Once or twice I thought he was following me around the neighborhood, but I never caught him.

It was starting to get on my nerves. The more I thought about Jake and that gun, the more it worried me. Suppose he had used the gun on Jimmy. Jake was freaked out enough to do something stupid like that. Maybe he thought Jimmy was going to come after him. And then it hit me: maybe he thought I was going to come after him.

I know I told him I didn't want nothing to do with him, and I didn't. But suppose he didn't believe me. Guys like Jake can't imagine that other people aren't as two-faced as they are. It would be natural for Jake to think I was lying, that I was trying to cool him off, make him let his guard down. That's what Jake would have done. That's probably what he was doing to me.

No, the more I thought about it, it only figured one way. Jake had taken out Jimmy Todd, and he was going to do the same to me.

Now, knowing something and knowing what to do about it are two different things. I was convinced that Jake was going to use that gun on me, but I didn't know how to stop him. I could get a piece of my own, but, like I say, I don't like guns. Guns are always bad luck, and I already had enough of that. I could drop a dime on him. I knew lots of jobs he never got busted for that the cops would love to hear about. He'd be out of the picture for a good long time. The problem was, a lot of those jobs he did with me. And there was a bigger problem, too: if I did that I'd be turning snitch, just like Jake. I'd be no better than him.

I couldn't clear out and lay low someplace. That'd be breaking parole, and they'd find me — they always do — and throw me back in Rahway. Everywhere I turned there was a brick wall, and I felt those walls closing in on me. And then I remembered the one guy I never thought could help me with anything.

I found Jake eating a bowl of chili at the Elite Diner. I made sure he saw me coming a long way off. I didn't want to surprise him and get shot. I slid into the booth across from him. "Hey Jake, how's it going?"

He said, "OK," but he sounded like his dog died.

I leaned forward, real confidential, "You found anything?"

He shook his head and crumbled some crackers in his chili.

"The reason I ask, I just heard Norm Krumwalz is putting together something, three guys and a driver. I thought maybe you'd be interested."

"Norm Krumwalz."

"Yeah. I'd get in on it myself, but I got this other thing, you know, and then I thought of you."

"Well, hey, thanks, Eddie," Jake said. "Where can I get a hold of Norm?"

"You can usually find him at the Empire Lanes. He's crazy about bowling, Norm is. Got his own ball and everything." I had seen Norm Krumwalz at the Empire Lanes myself the day before. He outlined his whole plan for me. He was proud of it. Norm was like that — always running his mouth when he should be quiet.

Anyway, he told me all about the job. It was a check-cashing place on Montrose Avenue. Norm said the key was to hit them Thursday evening, because that's when they stocked up on cash for Friday. He had it all worked out with stopwatches and walkie talkies, two different cars, and a change of clothes for everybody, and I don't know what the hell all. He was even going to use smoke bombs to cover the getaway. It was Norm up to his old tricks. I knew Jake would go for it because it was so complicated. I also knew it was too complicated to ever work. I just had my fingers crossed that they'd get to pull the job before it all went bad.

The way I figured it, Jake would throw in with Norm and they'd pull this job. The job would fall apart somehow, because that's what Norm's jobs always do. Jake would wind up on the run or maybe even arrested. Either way, he'd be out of the picture for a long time, and out of my hair.

It wasn't exactly snitching; that's what I told myself.

When the Thursday came around I hung around Dewey's, hoping for some news. Nine o'clock — nothing. Ten o'clock — nothing. I hung around till closing, and didn't hear a thing. I was feeling sick. I started to worry the job had fallen through before it ever got started. I couldn't stay at Dewey's any more, and there was nowhere else I wanted to go, so I went home.

Home at that time was a third floor studio on Bloom Street. Just a place to crash, really. It was all I needed. I didn't know what I would do when I got there. Maybe watch something stupid on TV, or listen to the radio. Anything to distract my mind.

I climbed the stairs, put the key in the lock, opened the door and stepped inside. As I closed the door, somebody said, "Eddie." I flattened myself against the wall. The lamp on the bedside table snapped on and Jake Fanelli was sitting on my bed.

He looked like he'd been through the mill. His coat was torn. His hands and face were smudged and scratched. His eyes were a little wild. Sitting next to him was a scuffed blue gym bag. In his hand was the revolver.

I said, "Jake, what the hell?"

He whispered, "Did anybody see you come in?"

"I don't know. Why shouldn't they? I live here. What are you doing here?"

He shook his head. "It all went wrong. Everything went wrong. We got the safe open and all at once the whole street outside was filled with cops. Norm went into a panic and started shooting. Then the whole thing turned into a train wreck. Norm took one in the belly, and that little guy — Artie something — he's dead. I don't know what happened to the others. I grabbed the bag, set off one of the smoke bombs and slipped out the back. Jeez, what a mess."

Norm Krumwalz hated guns more than me. He was scared of them, never carried one. If anyone had lost it and started shooting, I was pretty sure I knew who it was. "That's a tough break," I said.

"I had to take the long way around through the park, crawling through the damn bushes. I needed a place to hide out. I thought of you." He gestured with the gun.

I said, "Swell."

"I gotta rest for a while." He shook his head. "It seemed like a perfect plan. I just don't understand how everything coulda went wrong." He paused and a queer look came over his face as he stared at me.

I could have told him that the reason was Norm Krumwalz probably told everybody and his uncle about what he was planning, but that didn't seem like a good idea. I just said, "Hey, stuff like that happens."

Jake said, "Yeah," and kept staring at me. Then he shook his head like a dog and said, "I'm tired."

"Listen, Jake, you just rest and I'll make some coffee. You want some coffee?"

"Yeah, coffee."

I fixed some instant at the stove and brought it over to him. He drank it like he hadn't had coffee in a year.

I asked him, "So, what do you think you're gonna do now?"

"I gotta blow town," he said. "I gotta get out of here."

"Yeah, Jake, that's smart."

"I ain't forgot about you."

My stomach did a somersault. "What do you mean?"

"You're the one got me in on this job. I ain't gonna forget that."

"Jeez, Jake, how could I know — "

"You got something coming."

"Listen, Jake, don't do nothing crazy."

He reached into the gym bag and pulled out a handful of bills. "Even though the job went sour, I'm the one that got the haul. I figure I owe you." He dropped the money on the bed. "That's a thousand bucks. I figure now we're square."

I could have kissed him. "Whatever you say, Jake. Thanks a lot."

He had some more coffee, and I called him a cab. While we waited he kept going on about Norm and the others and how he couldn't understand how the job could have gone wrong. He had the pistol in his hand the whole time, gesturing with it. I said "Listen, Jake, don't you think you ought to put that thing away?" but he didn't seem to hear me.

When the cab arrived, I followed him to the door. I wanted to make sure he really left. He went down the stairs, turned at the first landing and pointed at me with the gun. "We're square now, me and you," he said, "Right?"

It shook me for a minute. He was looking at me like I was the one had the gun. "Yeah, Jake," I told him, "we're square. Good luck."

"Good luck," he said, but I don't think he was talking to me.

He went down the rest of the stairs, and I heard the outside door open and close. I never saw him again.

After Jake was gone, I felt bad in a good kind of way. I gave half the thousand to Ida Todd. We never did find Jimmy. That made me wonder. I wouldn't have thought Jake was clever enough to hide a body that good. Sometimes I think maybe he just got lucky. Sometimes I think maybe he didn't smoke Jimmy at all. Sometimes I just don't know what to think.

Jim Cort is a New Jersey native who has supported himself by writing most of his adult life. His first published story was "The Reaper," which appeared in Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Magazine in September, 1982. The story was an entry in the magazine's first short story contest and finished in the top twenty from a field of over nine thousand.

Throughout the eighties Jim sold stories, poems and articles to Twilight Zone, Reader's Digest, The New Yorker and other magazines, anthologies, and online sites. He has also worked as a corporate trainer and technical writer, and produced hundreds of manuals, training aids, and courses. In 1988 he began writing radio plays, which have been produced on audiocassette, and on the air at radio stations across the country, including National Public Radio. In 1992, his novel The Lonely Impulse was published by Pendulum Press.

A retired teacher, Jim has taught writing at the Northern New Jersey Reading Council's Young Author's Conference, the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Drew University, and at the Adult Career Center at Sussex County Technical School.

Jim was a contributing editor to Learning Through History magazine, and author of a column on business writing WordWorks. He lives in Sussex County with his wife Louise, three daughters, four birds, three dogs, and several uninvited mice.

Copyright 2011 Jim Cort. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

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