Two Birds is available for download as an Amazon Kindle e-book; a Kindle is not required – you just need the free app. Just go to www.amazon.com/author/danapearson
And here, for your reading pleasure, is the first chapter. Enjoy!
The phone rang just as Jimmy Saravanamuttu stapled a bag of ice over the thermostat sealed within a protective plastic case yellowed by age.
“Skinny. Half an hour.”
Van hung up and returned the stapler to its bottom drawer in the galley kitchen. He found the useful half of a pencil under a month-old Time magazine on the counter and scratched cup hook on the top sheet of a stack of heart-shaped Post-its. Van peeled off the pink heart, folded it, and slid it into the breast pocket of his shirt.
Walking into the bedroom lit by meager daylight sneaking in through a tear in the shade, he smiled. Petra was sleeping in the fetal position under a log cabin quilt on a futon mattress tucked up against the wall. Van woke her to say goodbye.
“You warm enough, babe?”
“I gotta go see Skinny. You need anything?”
She freed an arm from under the quilt and placed a warm hand on the side of Van’s face. “Chocolate cruller.”
“An apple? You got it. Fuji?”
She gently slapped him and removed her arm from sight. “You’re mean to me.”
“I love you.”
“How long you gonna be, baby?”
“What’s Skinny want with you?”
“Don’t know, but I’ll tell you when I get back.”
“Does he like you sharing your business with me?”
“Is that what we’re calling it?”
“He’s never mentioned it. It’s never come up.”
He leaned in closer and kissed her nose.
“I like knowing what you’re up to,” she said. “Makes me feel safe.”
“My man’s a bad-ass.”
“That’s just my job.” He stood.
“Sing me a song.”
“I gotta go, babe.”
“Just one song. It always makes me feel better.”
Van figured he could spare four and a half minutes, so he pulled his sunburst Epiphone out of its ratty case, plucked out an A minor, and sang “One,” during which Petra closed her eyes and gradually opened her mouth as she fell back asleep. He needed only two minutes.
Van closed the bedroom door behind him, slipped on his leather jacket, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and walked out into the damp December air. The storm appeared to have passed, but it was still raining from the wind-swept bare trees. From the stoop, he aimed his key fob at the gray ’96 New Yorker resting on the freshly paved driveway of the duplex, and unlocked its doors with a dainty beep. He didn’t like being a young man with an old man’s car, but preferred it to being a young man without an old man’s car. It had been a gift, one upgraded with a few modern amenities, so he kept reminding himself to be grateful. As did the man who gave it to him.
“How’s she running?”
Van looked out the café window at the parked car as though he needed a visual, and said, “Fine, Skinny, fine.”
“You know they don’t make that model anymore.”
“You don’t say.”
“You deserve it.”
The pale man peering over from the next booth, interpreting the remark through a miasma of cynicism, smiled. Skinny yanked the pale man’s earlobe, eliciting a yelp.
“It’s a nice car,” said Skinny, “though Yates here thinks otherwise.”
“I’m glad he thinks,” said Van quietly.
“Yates has his faults,” said Skinny, smoothing out the man’s earlobe, “but he has strengths I haven’t found in anyone else. Including you.” Skinny gave Van a look that Van interpreted as meaningful, though the meaning escaped him. Yates smiled again, imbuing his bland face with a vaguely sinister aura. He twisted on his padded bench with a vinyl fart-squeak and returned to his eggs Benedict and tea, pretending to give Skinny and Van some privacy in their booth. Van held his coffee mug but didn’t drink from it. He contemplated the bald patch on the back of Yates’s head and waited for Skinny to say something.
Skinny wasn’t one of those shady characters endowed with an ironic nickname; the man was underweight. His narrow, angular face with prominent ears rested atop a narrow frame typically clothed in dark brown or green, the better to complement his short reddish hair and hazel eyes. Whenever a man underestimated Skinny due to his less than imposing physique, he had that misconception quickly corrected mid-conversation. Skinny had not become the right-hand man to the leader of the city’s most powerful loan shark by mincing words and playing nice. Van believed Skinny had crippled and possibly killed men in his line of work. Three times now, Skinny had told Van, “It’s not having strength, it’s possessing the willingness to use what strength you have.” Still, Van executed one hundred push-ups a day.
He doubled that three days earlier, and jogged ten miles instead of his usual five, to compensate for the pasta and cake he had indulged in the previous night. It was his twenty-fifth birthday, and he wanted to humor Petra, who seemed eager to find the occasion significant. He deemed birthday parties frivolous, and believed a person should mark the anniversary by honoring those who had made it all possible, regardless of their shortcomings. His mother, recently laid off from the furniture company she had worked at for nineteen years, was free for lunch at a barbecue joint downtown. Per tradition, she related his birth-story, looking sad whenever the tale required mention of Van’s father.
“No word?” he asked, reaching for the bill.
“Still in Castle Rock, if what I last heard holds true,” she said, her two-packs-a-day voice rasping like a bastard file. Van looked at his mother and wished she’d stop dying her hair; hard living had aged her well beyond her forty-five years, and he didn’t think her face could get away with Nice ‘n Easy anymore.
“What’s he doing there?”
“How in God’s hell should I know?”
“I’d like to see him,” he said, even though he had never made any independent effort to find the man, never driven the two hours to Castle Rock to ask one of its two thousand inhabitants, “Pardon me, but do you know where I can find Dilan Saravanamuttu?”
“What’s it matter? I’d like to meet the man.”
“He doesn’t want to see you.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t see him having fucking lunch with us. Do you? Listen to your mother. I gave birth to you. I know things. That man is no good.” She ran a hand through her rich brown hair. The lines around her eyes softened. “He did help produce you, so I’ll give him some credit for that. But since then, it’s been a slow, steady slide into…into what he is today. He’s not a bad man. He’s just not that good. And he started out with so much hope and promise. That’s what attracted me to him.”
“Is it his fault nobody gave him a chance?”
“That’s bullshit, Jimmy,” she said harshly. “Do you sit around all day waiting for someone to be nice to you, to give you something that maybe you deserve, maybe you don’t? Please. You work.”
Van paused, then said, “I’m not so sure I’m amounting to much in this world, Ma.”
She stared intently at her son for a moment. She grimly said, “You fucking better. I’m counting on you.”
Van saw elements of that stare in the look Skinny was giving him in the café. The rain, having decided on a return engagement, streaked the grimy window. Van heard thunder off to the west. He briefly worried about his leather jacket getting spotty.
“Happy birthday,” said Skinny at last. “Belatedly.”
“Thanks.” He finally got around to sipping his coffee. “How’d you know?”
“Bumped into Petra at the bakery. Nice looking cake.”
“There’s leftovers if you’re interested.”
“I am. Have a couple slices ready tomorrow morning when I take you to the airport.”
Van didn’t say “Airport?” or “Really?” He had learned to not set Yates up for rude rejoinders. He also knew Skinny liked to be cryptic at times, dropping little hints and allowing them to stink up the joint before clearing the air with what he was getting at so damn slowly. Van looked at Skinny and Skinny looked at Van and Yates frowned over his eggs at a lost opportunity.
“I’ve got a job for you,” said Skinny. “Consider it a birthday gift. You do this right, Mr. Cho will be very appreciative.”
Van held his breath. Skinny rarely invoked the leader’s name while handing out assignments to his underlings. Van would not be shaking down another shoe store manager.
“You don’t like basketball, do you?”
Van resigned himself to Skinny’s annoying game.
“I don’t play it, but I watch it sometimes.”
“I thought you spics were naturally athletically gifted,” said Yates without turning around. A passing waitress raised her eyebrows and kept walking.
“Van is not Hispanic,” said Skinny patiently, “but you know that.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Jimmy Saran Wrap Mr. Moto. That’s Chinese, right?”
“Finish your breakfast and let me talk.” Skinny sighed. “I have to send him along with you, Van, this being your first time away. But he’s promised to be on his best behavior.” Yates shrugged. “You didn’t catch the University of Washington game last night, did you?”
“No.” Van didn’t elaborate.
“Hear about it?”
“The Huskies were playing an exhibition game in Tempe against Arizona State. Mr. Cho personally had a bundle riding on it. He’s always been a proud supporter of the home team. The way the game was going, he was promising to be a proud and very happy supporter. The problem, the…the challenge we’re confronting here is that the game was called before it could count. It had to be forfeited because they hadn’t reached the thirty-minute mark. It being an exhibition game, it will not be continued. The teams agreed on that. It’s as if it never happened. The stats won’t count, nothing.”
“Go ahead,” said Skinny. “Ask.”
“How could a man like Mr. Cho lose a – never mind.”
“You’re supposed to ask why the game was forfeited.”
Van was baffled. “Why does that matter?”
“There’s another question I didn’t expect.”
“Engage your brain,” said Yates, turning around and resting an arm on the cracked divider. “If the NC double-fucking-A says a game is forfeited, it’s forfeited, and all bets are off. Even the wisest bettor will get screwed under those circumstances.” He glanced at Skinny. “I’m done with breakfast.”
“The NCAA?” said Van. “The betting was legit?”
“You really don’t follow college ball, do you?” said Yates. Van shook his head.
“Mr. Cho was in Vegas yesterday,” said Skinny.
“I didn’t know that.”
“No need for you to know.”
“So what happened to the money that was laid down?” said Van. “Who keeps it?”
“All the bets were returned to the bettors,” said Skinny.
“Oh.” Van remained baffled. “So he really didn’t lose any money then, right?”
“Actually, yes, he did. He lost out on the money he was surely going to win, had it not been for the forfeiture, which brings me to why the game was—“
“Does he do much gambling?” asked Van, who found himself talking more than usual.
“For your own good,” said Skinny, “shut the hell up.” Van shut the hell up. “I was getting to why the game was called.” He paused. Van could see that Yates wanted to blurt out the reason; the man was in turmoil. He waited with Van. Skinny stared at Van, as though challenging him to ask another question, daring him to be insubordinate. Van breathed through his nose. The waitress paused by the booth to top off his coffee. “The power grid went down.”
“No, Van, it’s not OK.”
“That doesn’t happen?”
“No, Van, it does not happen, especially not at 29:34.”
“The lights don’t simply go out in Tempe, Arizona twenty-six seconds before a college basketball game becomes valid. You see the problem now?”
“I do. Though I’m not sure how you’d like to correct it. I mean, the findings were legal, right, so what can be done about it?” He sped up to add, “But I’ll do…I’ll do whatever you want, Skinny.”
“Though maybe I’m not the best person for the job, not being up to speed on the game.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout that. We’re not looking for color commentary.” Skinny looked at Yates. “Go warm up the car.”
“We’re just about done here.” His eyes following Yates to the white Escalade parked behind Van’s car, he said, “You’re flying down to Phoenix. Mr. Cho wants to know if the power outage was legitimate. Find out. He’s convinced that someone betting on the other side saw the bath being drawn for him, and made sure the game was invalidated. The game had inspired an above-average amount of bets. The pay-offs were going to be astronomical. You find the proof, and that person will be made to pay. And you’ll be the one to extract the payment. You’ll do fine. We’ve got a good man down there who – what? You look worried.”
“Not worried, Skinny, just curious why you had Yates go start up the car.”
“Why did you notice that?”
“Why does that bother you?”
“I don’t know.” He sipped his coffee. “He’s never warmed up the car for you.”
“You’ve never seen him warm up my car for me?”
“So that means he’s never warmed up my car for me?”
“No. Just means I’ve never seen him do it.”
“Let’s say he’s never warmed up my car for me. You think that me asking him to go warm it up today, that makes him my bitch?”
“Jesus Christ, Skinny, you can have him detail the fucking thing, I couldn’t care less.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“There’s no problem.”
“Then nothing. It’s just odd.”
“You’re right. It is odd. And that’s because I’ve never asked him to warm up my car.”
“Well, it’s not like you asked.”
“I hate getting into a cold car. You know. The crunchy leather.”
“Uh huh,” said Van doubtfully.
Skinny smiled. “This is why Mr. Cho finds you so promising. You’re a sharp little bugger. See, he’d like you to get rid of Yates, and I didn’t want Yates to hear about it in advance. He’d be less likely to accompany you to Phoenix.” Skinny saw Van’s face change; its hue deepened, the jawline tensed, the deep brown eyes froze. Van couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Yates is no longer welcome in Seattle. Make sure he doesn’t come back, and that his disappearance won’t be linked to you or us.”
“What…what’s he done, that he should be—”
“The less you know, the better,” said Skinny soothingly. “Hasn’t that been the case so far?”
“All I’ll say is that Yates has a tendency to open up, to become effusive while intoxicated. He shares things he ought not to share, and with the wrong people.”
“But, Skinny, I’m…I’m a messenger boy. I rough up stupid, weak men.”
“And you’ve done a remarkable job. That’s why Mr. Cho is entrusting you with these two very important tasks.”
“I don’t see how—”
“You’re graduating, Van. Congratulations, and happy birthday.”