George gets into the family business. He and Mose, a junkie, drive a load of marijuana cross country. At the end of his odyssey, he will wed a girl he's never met in an arranged marriage. LEARN MORE or BUY NOW
COMING IN FALL, 2022
George stared at the pretty girl at the adjacent picnic table. She sat with her family, all of them blond and perfect, the men in boots and starched jeans, the women in western skirts. In contrast, he sat with his family, eleven Greeks, enough for a football team. They wore their ethnic uniforms—floral dresses for the women and khaki work pants for the men. The only variation was One-Eye, his great grandmother, who always dressed in black.
The girl stared back.
He tried not to get excited, assuming she was looking at something behind or beyond, and he only thought she was staring at him. That was how life worked. You got all stirred up by the proximity of all that beauty and interpreted events from your own pathetic bias and escalated from staring to gawking to outright ogling only to realize she was looking at the big, strapping high school fullback who happened to be standing behind you.
There was no one else around, though. She laughed like she knew what he was thinking,
A breeze gusted off the bay and rippled through her hair, which was wild and free, not like the coiffed helmet hair of the other women at her table. She wasn’t dressed like the others either. She wore faded jeans and a white muslin cotton blouse that rustled in the breeze along with her hair. She looked like—a hippie.
He sat fused between Mother and Uncle Nick. The Holy Trinity they were. Nick checked his Rolex, and Mother checked her Lady Seiko. While the white people had better clothes, the Greeks had better watches. Nick swapped marijuana for them, and everyone had a good one, even One-Eye, who could barely see and was too senile to tell time.
George looked at his, a Timex chronograph with dials, a stopwatch, and a display of the phases of the moon. It was almost time to meet the courier, so he ratcheted up the flirtation, leaning toward the girl and smiling big.
She smiled too.
Mother noticed the drama and raised an eyebrow. When Nick saw what was happening, he shuddered. In their Pantheon, skinny blondes were right up there with demons, and they did not want George tempted. He, The One with the Precocious Vocabulary, would be needed in the inevitable battle with their sworn enemy, Lazarus.
Bold action was needed if he were to get her phone number. Rising from the cement bench, extricating himself from the suffocating embrace of family, he unfurled himself to his full five foot seven inches and fixed a steely, manly gaze on her.
She looked him up and down, and he started toward her.
She stood too!
Everyone at both tables froze, their mouths in mid-chew, forks in mid-air. It looked like a tableau on the Parthenon. Only One-Eye didn’t know what was happening. Her empty socket, permanently shut from glaucoma surgery, faced the girl, so she didn’t see a thing, and she kept yakking in Greek about some dispute over olive groves back in her village when she was a girl. Finally, even she realized there was a problem, and she turned and focused her good eye on George and then at the temptress. When she realized the girl was a xenia, a stranger, her mouth dropped open in shock.
An older man, had to be the girl’s father, stood and grabbed her wrist to keep her in place, and a young man jumped up and stood in front of George. About George’s age, but a full head taller, he wore fancy snake-skin cowboy boots and a bright blue shirt with pearl snaps. What a caricature of a cowboy. He had a square jaw that jutted forward; his pearl snaps glistened in the sunlight. He leaned forward and scowled. Was he her boyfriend? That square jaw beckoned, and George was about to punch it, knowing the guy wasn’t expecting it. How surprised would he be when his head got knocked back? His eyes would roll up in their sockets, and his body would crumble and fall to the ground.
Merriment reigned in the rest of the park. People sang happy birthday at one table, men drank beer and turned steaks on a grill at another, teenagers threw a softball in an open field, children played tag, squealing with delight.
But that was all far away. All that existed was that jaw. And the girl. What would be the outcome of that blow? A race riot? Would the others in the park be drawn into the melee, choosing sides based on skin color? Would the hostilities escalate into the looting of nearby stores? Would it rival the Detroit race riot of the previous long hot summer? Would it be called the Greek vs. Cowboy Fourth of July Barbecue Riot?
“George,” the voice of reason called. It was Mother, standing behind him, talking in his right ear, putting herself at risk if the punches flew. “What are you doing?”
What was he doing? Fighting over a white girl he didn’t even know? The laws of the cosmos were immutable, set in concrete, etched on stone tablets. White people stayed with white people. Brown people stayed with brown people. Blacks stayed with blacks. And Greeks remained with Greeks. He would be a fool to chuck two thousand five hundred years of collective Greek history into the wastebasket to chase after a white girl.
He stormed past everyone and headed toward the bay.
But when he looked back, she was looking at him. Framed by the green grass and blue sky, she hadn’t moved.
That made him stop.
Who said everything was preordained? It was 1968, for God’s sake. The world was going crazy. Boys were letting their hair grow long, and girls were burning their bras. Kids were smoking pot and listening to rock and roll records and fucking people they barely knew in the back seats of their parents’ cars. Why couldn’t he have a girlfriend who wasn’t Greek?
Her father had a firm grip on her wrist, though. She squirmed, but he wouldn’t let go.
Lest he turn into a pillar of salt, George turned and kept walking, lust bubbling inside him like he was a cauldron.
The fragrant salt air and sea breeze calmed him. He walked past the jetty to the crowded pier where fishermen hawked their wares. One fisherman, big and burly, stood in front of his boat. His face was sunburned and peeling, one of those pale faces that probably never tanned but went straight from white to red. He had a gap between his two front teeth. A younger man, barely older than George, stood behind him and scowled to reveal an identical gap between his front teeth. Had to be father and son.
“Help a good ol’ Texas boy out,” Gap-Tooth the Father called out to a young couple strolling the pier. “Buy a few fish from me. When I fill out my income tax, I can’t put that my occupation is a lady’s man. I’ve got to make at least a few sales to stay legitimate.”
The couple laughed and gave him money. The Father wrapped the fish in newspaper, but they didn’t like the smell and shoved them back. They let him keep the money, though. What a sweet deal. Gap-Tooth could report the cash or not report it. He could eat the fish or resell them. There was no way for anyone to know if there had been any fish at all.
Was this something his family might apply to their own business?
Pondering this, he hiked back. Mother and Nick waited at the picnic table, pacing like they were outside a hospital emergency room, both obsessively checking their watches. As soon as they saw him, they waved frantically. “Time to go,” Nick yelled.
Only fossils of the girl remained. Half-eaten platters of barbecue, a Styrofoam cup with lipstick on the rim, crumpled-up napkins.
Nick owned a Greek-blue 1958 Olds. George settled into the back seat and waited for them to say something about the girl. Any second, like predators, they would pounce. They never yelled, never hit. They relied on shame. A head shake and a disapproving glance punctuated by the word for shame—dropeé— hurt more than a punch.
Mother turned to him. Her face was grim. He braced himself.
“Lazarus’s brother got out of Joliet prison today. We got word right before the picnic.”
This wasn’t what he expected. He knew Lazarus had a brother, but he’d been in prison forever. They rarely talked about him.
“His name is Joey, right? And Lazarus and Joey are identical twins, right?”
“Yes,” she said.
He waited for her to elaborate, but she didn’t. And she never said anything about the girl, either.
They stored the marijuana at Nick’s house, a massive two-story Victorian on a tree-lined boulevard of meticulously maintained mansions in The Land That Time Forgot. Once the homes and second homes of oil millionaires and rice farmers, this one had fallen into Nick’s hands. George didn’t know what he’d done to get it, but you didn’t get big houses for selling watches and marijuana.
It had grown steadily more dilapidated over the years. The porch sagged, weeds choked the yard, and most of the gingerbread and spindle decorations had fallen from the roofline. Desperate to hang onto their village roots, they maintained a chicken coop alongside the house, unfazed by the fact that the neighbors would have nothing to do with them and never even said hello.
Nick ran inside, carefully stepping over a loose board in the steps, and emerged a minute later with a burlap bag slung Santa-clause style across his back. The next-door neighbor, a perky young woman, peeked out her blinds of them.
George sank into the upholstery. The world was a dangerous place. The neighbors were suspicious of them; he was lusting after a xenia; Joey was out of prison.
George and Mother lived a few miles away in a modest, two-story wood-frame house on a narrow lot between two bungalows. Its best feature, and the reason they’d bought the place, was its detached garage, which sat at the end of the driveway, and was barely visible from the street.
There was a padlock made of case-hardened steel on the side door to the garage. The neighborhood might burn down or get knocked all to hell by a hurricane, but that lock would survive.
George unlocked it and put it in his pocket, then helped them stack the marijuana bricks in the storage cabinets at the back of the garage. When the car with Illinois plates arrived, Nick raised the overhead garage door. George went into the house and watched from a window to ensure no one disturbed them. The hillbilly neighbors on one side weren’t home. Their hound dog napped on the porch. The childless couple who lived on the other side wasn’t home either. No one walked the street.
Time passed. Five minutes. Ten minutes. The padlock weighed down his jeans. He took it out and played with it, locking and unlocking it, and then accidentally dropped it. It hit his big toe. Boy, did that hurt, even though he wore tennis shoes. You could bash someone’s skull in with that.
The side door opened abruptly, and Nick tromped out scowling and raised the overhead door. He looked at George and shook his head. The courier drove away, a smirk on his mouth. Mother, also scowling, came out with two brown paper sacks with the outline of a box inside each one. Way too big for watches. They came into the house, and she set them on the kitchen table.
“Cameras,” she said. She might as well have been talking about lumps of coal. “They sent cameras instead of watches. No one up there in Chicago said anything about cameras.”
She slid a sack across to George, and he pulled the box out and set it on the table. It was a Nikon camera. He spun it around to examine each side. Maybe, if one didn’t sell, he’d get it. “Wow, this is neat. I bet it’s expensive.”
“That’s the problem,” Nick moaned. “Watches are one thing. Everyone wants a watch or jewelry, and we sell them so cheap compared to the stores that we can sell as many as we get. But these are expensive cameras. Who’s going to spend a lot of money on a camera? Maybe if we got a load of Brownies or Polaroids. You pay a few bucks for one of those, more for the Polaroid. You take them out of the box, and you get good pictures. But these cameras, Nikons, you got to pay a lot for these, and who the hell knows how to use them. Boy, Chicago got the better end of the deal on this one. They must have gotten them and didn’t know what to do with them, so they dumped them on us.”
Mother and Nick looked at each other.
“Lazarus,” they said simultaneously.
“He is behind it all,” she said. “He fixed it so this delivery would be on the same day we heard about Joey.”
The afternoon shadows grew long and melded with their gloom. One ray of light fell across the table and highlighted his skin. He was a shade lighter than everyone else in the family. That coloration had to have come from his father. He’d been told his father’s name was Mike, but he’d never met him, didn’t know if he was alive or dead, never seen a picture. He was an ancient myth. Mike came down from the heavens with wings on his cap and sandals, got Mother the Beautiful pregnant, and flew back up into the clouds.
He looked at his skin and then their darker skin.
“Lazarus is blond-headed and light-skinned, right? So I guess his twin brother is too.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Why was Joey in prison?”
“Murder,” she said.
She hesitated. “We were all involved. Lazarus, me, Nick, Joey. Joey took the fall. He and Lazarus blame us. It’s how Nick got the big house. It’s why we moved down here.”
“And the murder happened right about the time I was born?”
“Do you have any pictures of Lazarus or Joey?”
“We left Chicago with barely the clothes on our back,” she said. “There are no pictures.” She paused. “Look, George, there might be a fight with Joey out of prison.”
“Is there any way to avoid a fight?” George asked. “Maybe we could talk to them and negotiate.”
“You can’t trust Lazarus,” she said. “Even if he says he’s with us, he’ll stab us in the back.”
“Maybe there’s something new we could offer them to make peace,” George said. “It’s 1968. Time for change. Every day on the radio, it’s the same message. Times are changing. We have to change with them. The Beatles and The Doors and the other groups are the new prophets.”
Nick crossed himself. “God, save us! What’s wrong with the old prophets? Moses and Noah and all those guys? What kind of crazy stuff are you talking about?” He looked at his Rolex. “We’re late, we’re late,” he said like the White Rabbit. “They’re waiting for watches at The Silver Bar, and we’ve got to try to sell cameras. Come on, George.”
They’d never allowed him to go to The Silver Bar. “But I’m underage.”
Nick chuckled. “Like you said, it’s time for change. It’s time for you to go to The Silver Bar.”
As the rough beast slouching to Bethlehem, George was coming of age.. BUY NOW
The fun continues in George: The Lost Year, the second novel of THE SAGA OF GEORGE trilogy. Abandoned by his beloved Kelly, George gets drawn back into the family business. He and Mose, a junkie, drive a load of marijuana cross country. At the end of his odyssey, he will wed a girl he's never met in an arranged marriage. George: The Lost Year tells the story of a mob boss in training. BUY NOW
George took the last puffs off the last joint, and wondered when, or if, Uncle Nick would arrive. He didn’t know how long he’d been waiting or even what day it was. He did remember that he had started with four big fat bombers. A third of the way through the first, realizing that most of the precious smoke was wasted billowing into the air, he’d re-rolled it into two thinner doobies. Eventually he’d re-rolled them all, and re-rolled them again into progressively skinnier joints. If four had turned into eight, and eight into sixteen, and he had smoked five a day, then three days had passed.
Very Biblical. And way too long. Nick should have made the drive in two. Why hadn’t he called? He picked up the motel phone to make sure it was working and, hearing the dial tone, set it back on its cradle and tiptoed to the peephole in the door. No one was on the breezeway. Someone would come, though. Either Nick—or Lazarus and his assassins. If it was to be Lazarus, George wanted to bathe so the coroner would not remark on his Mediterranean oiliness.
He took one last puff. The roach glowed a bright red. Little more than a glob of molten resin, it stuck to his thumb. He stood perfectly still, in perfect Zen-master mode despite the searing pain, and took careful aim with his middle finger and flicked it loose. It sailed in a perfect spiral like a football, or considering his proclivity for mixed metaphors, a comet, its bright red glow fading as it disappeared into the center of the mound of half-eaten carryout meals overflowing from the trash can.
It being Colorado the water in the shower came out Rocky Mountain cold, but heated up fast. Moisture collected on the mirror and walls, and soapy-smelling steam enveloped him. He drifted in a cloud until he heard footsteps through the thin walls. He turned off the water. Two sets of feet were marching down the breezeway. Heavy, clunky, men’s feet, full of purpose, with military synchronicity, the concrete vibrating under them.
They stopped at his door. Knuckles rapped on the wood.
Slipping on his jeans, he got the gun, Original Sin, out from between the mattress and box springs and tiptoed to the peephole. A swarthy man in khakis and a white t-shirt stood outside. Had to be a Greek, but that didn’t mean anything. There was a stain on the t-shirt. Like tomato paste. That didn’t mean anything either. Lazarus could have sent an assassin who worked at a restaurant when he wasn’t killing people. Life was an ongoing existential crisis. An enemy would look exactly like a friend. You never knew the truth until later, and then it didn’t matter.
“Who are you?” George asked through the door.
“I’m with your uncle.”
“What’s the password?”
The man looked perplexed. “Password?”
There was no password. Would an assassin have looked confused or merely busted down the door and started shooting? Probably busted down the door. The odds were 80-20 in George’s favor.
“Gadamn, George, it’s me,” Nick’s voice boomed from the breezeway, a distinctive voice with a drawl on top of the Greek accent, the result of a lifetime of grilling steaks for cowboys and oil men.
George slid the gun back under the mattress and unlocked the door. In an uncertain universe there was one constant: family. They would never betray him. They were bonded by blood, both the common blood that flowed through their veins, and the blood of the men they had killed together, although in George’s mind, he had never killed anyone. He had only had the unfortunate luck to attract trouble, and had acted in self-defense, so technically that wasn’t murder.
Nick marched in. Nick never walked. He marched. He trooped. He stormed. He strutted. Always with arms swaying in time like a metronome, and his stomach leading the way forward. Some men were flabby. Some men were thin. Nick had a bulging stomach that came to a point at his belt, making him look like a bowling pin, but there was no flab. It was all firm, nothing ever moving or shaking in all that fury of motion.
Like a soldier reconnoitering on a dangerous mission, he surveyed the disarray, the Marlboro in his mouth bobbing up and down as he talked. He motioned to the cook. “You remember Manoli, don’t you? He works at The Golden Flame in Denver. It’s owned by my cousin from Chicago. Haralambo. You’ve met him at weddings. He was at that one when we met Maria’s family. No one could ever forget that night.” He stopped and sniffed. “What’s that smell? Like something’s on fire.”
George smelled it too, not the sweetness of marijuana, but something acrid.
A plume of smoke rose from the carryout boxes. The roach had set the leftovers on fire!
Nick and the cook stomped on the garbage like they were dancing the Kalamatiano, scattering it across the floor. George slipped on a boot and helped, stomping with the one foot. Finally, a glowing grease-soaked paper sack emerged from the mass. It split open revealing a wad of burning napkins and wax paper. They kept stomping until the fire was out. In the room below someone banged on the ceiling. “What’s going on up there?” a voice yelled up to them.
Nick’s characteristic aplomb slipped away. “We got to get the hell back to Texas,” he said, as he and the cook threw the clothes into the two suitcases, randomly mingling Kelly’s clothes with his. “The money? Did she take the money?”
George, feeling woozy, settled onto the bed, and pulled on his other boot. “In the bottom of my suitcase. It’s all there. Fourteen thousand. Kelly didn’t take even a dollar. Not one dollar. She left with only the clothes on her back and—our baby.”
Nick stopped and looked at George, not quite believing what he had heard.
“She is pregnant. Kelly is pregnant. She is with child. She is pregnant with my child, and she left because she doesn’t want to be married to a mobster.”
Nick’s mouth dropped open in shock so far that the Marlboro fell out. He picked it up, and they redoubled their efforts. The cook stuffed all the garbage into a plastic laundry bag, moving frantically, sweeping up every last crust of bread and piece of lettuce, even wiping the carpet clean with some napkins. Nick found the manila envelope with the cash, and shut the suitcase, catching a pair of George’s white underwear in the lid. The white fabric stuck out.
“Stand up,” Nick told him. George wobbled to his feet, and Nick took a gaudy Orthodox cross out of his pants pocket. It was beautiful with fluted gold ends. “From now on you will wear this. We’ve got some tough times ahead. This will protect you.”
He put it around George’s neck, like he was knighting him. The cross, still warm and a little damp from being in Nick’s pocket, nestled into his chest hairs. George did feel better, more secure. He put on a t-shirt and crossed himself.
Nick hefted the bag over his back like Santa Claus, and led the way out. The sun blinded George. It was an Allegory-of-the-Cave moment. The enlightenment was too much. When he reached the end of the breezeway, he grabbed the railing to keep from falling, and looked down the steps to the ground a million miles away.
Pic watched Nick the Greek start down the steps with a garbage sack slung over his shoulder. For sure it was Nick. Pic hadn’t gotten a good look at his face when he had walked up to the room, but there no longer any doubt.
Terrified that Nick would recognize him, even though he wore dark sunglasses, he slumped down in his seat. Then, curiosity got him. What was in the garbage sack? Drugs? He peeked over the dashboard of his rented Chevy.
A scrawny kid with uncombed curly black hair was right behind Nick. Had to be the kid Lazarus wanted killed. He was young, really young. Probably not even twenty. Didn’t look like a badass at all, not at all what he had expected. Why was Lazarus so worked up over such a scrawny kid?
The kid wobbled as he walked, like he was really stoned. He stopped at the top of the steps, grabbed hold of the railing and looked down at the ground like he wasn’t sure he could make it. Nick looked back up at him.
If Pic had made his move earlier, when the kid had been alone in his room, then it might have been easy to kill him. But he had expected a badass barricaded in the room with guns. Pic, after all, was not an assassin. He was a singer in a rock-and-roll band, a good-looking, Mick-Jagger-lookalike with a shag haircut that made the girls scream when he took the stage at Pandora’s in Austin. Demo records of his song “Chick in Slacks” were out everywhere. So far no record producers had shown any interest, and Pic couldn’t understand why, but sooner or later someone would recognize his greatness. Sure he’d had that setback when his enemies stole all his band’s equipment because he couldn’t pay his coke debts. They should have been more understanding. No equipment meant no gigs. No gigs meant no money. No money meant no coke. That desperation had led him to Lazarus and that dark alley, the whole thing happening so fast he hardly realized how serious it was when Lazarus gave him the gun, and he blew the guy’s brains out. He hadn’t minded killing the guy, messy as it was, but he hadn’t understood until later that Lazarus kind of owned him after that.
The other guy followed the kid. He carried two suitcases. Since Nick and the guy had their hands full, and the kid was stoned, none of them could react real fast. What if he ran up and shot all three? Would that make Lazarus happy? He never could tell how Lazarus was going to react.
What was in the suitcases? Drugs? Why else would Lazarus want the kid killed? The kid had stolen drugs from Lazarus. What kind of drugs? The sack Nick carried might hold pot, but it wouldn’t hold enough to be worth killing someone over. The suitcases might hold powders, though. Maybe coke. Two suitcases full of coke would be worth killing someone over.
Something white stuck out of one of the suitcases. A piece of cloth. Or wrapping paper. He’d seen a shipment of coke once with all the plastic bags wrapped in white butcher paper. That was it. Those suitcases were filled with coke, and the paper around one of the bags had come loose and gotten stuck in the suitcase lid. He imagined the plastic bags. It had been almost two days since he’d had any coke, and he stared lovingly at his snorting kit on the seat next to him. He picked it up and looked at himself in its mirror. How handsome he was. Whenever he felt low, he looked at himself in that mirror, and he felt better.
The gun lay under the seat. For coke he would run a risk. He put up the kit and gripped the gun.
Crack, crack, crack.
His wife and his petherá were cracking pecans.
They scowled when he entered the kitchen. Had some old flame surfaced and made false accusations—or worse, true ones?
“What?” he asked in English.
He held the attaché case with the monthly bribe money at his side. They looked at it and kept cracking, their movements synchronized as if they were different appendages of the same being. Dressed in black, obviously mother and daughter, dark-haired and large-breasted, they looked like they belonged in a village with the donkeys braying outside and a church bell tolling in the distance.
“It’s going to be five years,” Maria said in Greek.
George stuck to English. “Five years?”
They cracked hard like they were smashing his nuts and waited for him to figure out what they wanted. It was like a fucking game show, and he didn’t have the answer, not even a clue. Their air-conditioner, a top-of-the-line unit, pumped quiet, frigid air; coffee perked on the stove. Something, chicken, he thought, baked in the oven. Outside, in the withering heat, their gardener roared past on their John Deere riding mower, leaving a wake of grass blades on the acre of manicured lawn.
When the sound of the mower faded, his petherá—his mother-in-law—hissed like a rattlesnake. “Five years since my husband died.
It was a punch in the gut. Old dead Manoli had to be venerated on the five-year anniversary, and George—the mobster for a new age—should have remembered.
He slid into his chair at the head of the table. “This is an important event,” he said in formal Greek to placate the old bat. The petheráhad her place in the universe along with the serpents, mosquitoes, cockroaches, and the various assorted plagues and calamities. George accepted God’s plan even though he did not understand it. “You’re making baklavá for the five-year memorial.”
Maria barely waited for the words to get out of his mouth. “We talked to the priest. We will have it this Sunday. Our daughters will come into town.”
Few people deserved less fanfare than Manoli. Even his demise, a heart attack after gorging himself on lamb at a wedding and then dancing a fast Kalamatianó, left little to admire. “Of course, of course. I’ll be back from Chicago by Friday, and I don’t have anything to do this weekend. It will work fine. Just tell me what you need.”
They knew he’d be back Friday, knew he had nothing to do over the weekend, knew how many times he’d take a crap and how many sheets of toilet paper he’d use. Why were they having this discussion? He popped a pecan into his mouth and waited for their next move.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Maria went in for the kill. “We want a big celebration. Dinner and a party at the Zeus and Hera on Saturday night. We’ll get Jimmy and the Corinthians to play all the old songs. You know how my father loved them. Then, the memorial at the church on Sunday and a meal here. We want to invite some of the Chicago relatives. My aunts and my brothers and the two Marias. And my koumbára. And her family, including her sisters. And if we invite them, then we have to invite Pano. I talked to his wife yesterday. She says he’s not feeling well, but his doctor says he’s fine and that he can travel down here. And if we invite him, then we have to invite Lazarus.”
He smashed his fist on the table; pecans bounced into the air. “No, no, no. It gives me a headache thinking about a big party. They’ll camp out here for days, smoke cigarettes, drink all my whiskey, clog our toilets. And we can’t have Lazarus.” The pecan caught in his throat, and he almost choked. “Lazarus tried to kill me. More than once. Have you forgotten? I will not allow him in this house.”
“There’s been peace for so long. He won’t cause trouble at a church event.” Her voice hardened. “It is the five-year memorial. How many more times will my father be dead for five years?” She paused. “We invited your mother. We called her at her ranch and told her she could bring her boyfriend.”
They were pulling out all the stops.
“We invited your Uncle Nick too, but, you know, he can’t come.”
Nick had fled to Greece one step ahead of the Feds, leaving George the caretaker of the house and businesses, but they pretended he was just off for an extended vacation and always invited him to the big events.
Maria and his petherá laid their nutcrackers on the table and awaited his answer. He looked at the large icon of Christ Pantocrator on one wall and then at an equally large framed photo of Pano on the opposite wall. There could be no simmering family discord before the Panayíasholiday, nothing to upset Nick or Pano. And most of all, there could be nothing to pique the interest of Lazarus, the scumbag convert. The anger pulsed in his temples.
“Sure, sure, go ahead. But not Lazarus. I will not allow him in our house.”
“Anything you say. You know, if you’re worried about him, you need a bodyguard. I always tell you to get one, and you never listen. And stop meeting Beto at the mall. Everybody knows you own an art gallery there. People think you’re getting soft.”
His petherá tapped her head with her finger. “Your brains are soft like yogurt.”
George marched out the door with the attaché case.
“I’m cooking chicken and potatoes tonight,” Maria yelled after him. “Don’t be late. It’ll be ready at five. And I need you to pick up a tub of feta at the Zeus and Hera on your way home.”
The suffocating, humid air, redolent with the smell of the nearby refineries, clubbed him as soon as he stepped outside. There was no breeze. The tyrannical yellow sun hovered over the spires of the house. Moss hung straight down off the live oak s. Sweat gushed from his body, and God’s plan became clear. He had sent his family to dwell in Houston because it was a foretaste of Hell, the place he was sure to spend all eternity.
The gardener rounded the house at full speed, looking like an Indy race car driver. Not wanting to kill the famed mob boss, he veered sharply, and a gust of wind, probably the only gust during the whole fucking day, caught the clippings and showered them on George. It was hard to look suave with grass blades fluttering about you, but he never faltered in his practiced nonchalance and escaped up I-45 to the mall, weaving through traffic in his long, lean black Jag, the air conditioner on high, all the vents pointed at his face.
George’s art gallery, The Crossroads, occupied a prime spot in the mall. It was a light, airy space with abstract paintings, mixed-media sculpture, and a display of oil paintings of stark desert landscapes. He stopped for a moment and remembered his wayward teenage years and his fantasies about having his photos displayed in galleries. The world had seemed full of possibility, but the dreams had slipped from his grasp.
There was no time to reminisce. Beto was probably already waiting in the food court. George went to his office, locked the door, and opened the wall safe. Inside, there was only one item: a box that contained an icon of the Virgin Mary. It was the gift he would take to Pano when he went to Chicago. Specially made in Greece, shipped in brown paper wrapping direct to the gallery, it depicted the Virgin Mary. The iconographer had painted her face onto the wood in the traditional Byzantine style. Silver inlay radiated out from her like a halo. Encrusted with jewels and enamel, it glowed. Even though he was a skeptic, he had trouble catching his breath and crossed himself.
No one, not Maria, not his petherá, knew about it. Secrecy had to be maintained lest Lazarus find out how magnificent it was and try to outdo him at the last minute. In particular, his petherá could not be trusted to keep her mouth shut. He wrapped it back up in its brown paper and, trying to look nonchalant, strolled out of the office with it in one hand and the attaché in the other.
An attractive woman in a purple dress stood outside the gallery, and he stopped to get a good, long look at her. He was always on the lookout for a girlfriend, and the gallery provided numerous opportunities.
There was something familiar about her. She looked like Kelly, the sweetheart of those wayward teenage years. He always thought he saw her, but it never was her.
She stared at him through the floor-to-ceiling window.
Yes, it was her. Twenty-three years had passed, but there was no face quite like that: exotic, slightly angular, almost Greek, like Helen of Troy, the face that had launched a thousand ships.
Another woman walked up next to her. She pointed to another store. Kelly glanced at George and reluctantly let the woman pull her away and out of sight.
Monthly-bribe-meeting or not, he was not going to let Kelly slip away. He ran into the hall as the purple dress disappeared into the crowd. He raced forward. Shoppers blocked his path, their arms laden with God knows what—handbags, shirts, blouses, jeans, household knickknacks, cutlery, baby clothes, fine chocolate.
When he finally broke through, he didn’t see her. He reached an intersection and looked left and right. Nothing. He raced forward, then doubled back and ran down each hall. Nothing.
Deciding his best chance to spot her was to station himself at a busy spot, he stopped at a sunglasses kiosk. Of all things, there was a bust of Apollo wearing a multi-colored pair of sunglasses on the counter. When he had eloped with Kelly, he had bought a pair of sunglasses at a truck stop. He slapped some money on the counter, pulled the glasses off the bust, and put them on. The world had a yellow tinge like it did that day in the desert.
Like Apollo, the god of the sun, George took the escalator up up up into the light to the food court. In a dark suit, tie, and crisp white shirt, his high school buddy sat sipping an espresso at a bistro table overlooking the ice-skating rink.
An attaché case, identical to the one George carried, sat on the floor beside him. George had bought them to exchange money and documents, but then he saw a movie about identical briefcases that were accidentally switched, leading to a gruesome comedy of errors. George had agonized about the possibility of such an error, but the problem had solved itself when a drug runner went crazy, and George hit him in the head with one attaché, knocking him out cold. The impact left a slight dent in the case, distinguishing it from the other.
“You’re late,” Beto said.
“What’s the deal with the sunglasses?” His brow furrowed as if he thought George had gone a little crazy.
“Bought them on a whim.”
Beto found nothing amusing in the comment. In years past, he would have made a witty comment. “Is everything the same? The same amounts to everyone?”
“I want to start meeting somewhere else.”
He thought to remind him that he and his family had bankrolled his political career, but he let it go. “Sure.”
Beto snatched the case with the money and strolled off without a word of goodbye or without looking back. That was how things had become between them. Could he be trusted in the clutch in a critical situation? That was something to worry about another day. He put the box with the icon into the other attaché and wandered the mall, looking for Kelly, finally working his way back to his gallery.
There she was. By herself
They moved to each other with no hesitation.
“It’s been twenty-three years since we saw each other,” he said. “We only live a few miles from each other, but I never see you.”
She nodded. The hippie he’d fallen in love with was gone, replaced by a mature, sleek woman. “I love the sunglasses,” she said. Her eyes brimmed with life like they had that day in the park when she lay on her back in the grass and looked up at him. “They remind me of the ones you wore.”
The wind had whipped through their hair as they drove through the desert. All he had to do was get rid of Original Sin, the gun that had belonged to the man who might have been his father, the man he had killed and buried on the spot where Kelly had first kissed him. “I’m surprised you remember the glasses.”
“Sure, I remember.”
“Were you looking for me?” he asked.
“A friend wanted to meet for lunch, so I told her to meet here. I know about your gallery. I’ve been here several times recently.” She pushed her sandy hair behind her ear the way she did in the motel on the highway when they sat naked and cross-legged on the bed and planned to elope.
“How do you know about the gallery?”
“Everyone knows about the gangster that owns an art gallery. Why’d you buy it?”
“I wanted to be a photographer and have my work displayed. Buying The Crossroads was my consolation prize. The previous owner was in trouble, so I got it cheap. It’s a bad investment, but I enjoy seeing the art and meeting the artists.”
She smiled. The dress clung to her taut, luscious body like Saran wrap. “I’ll never forget when we got off the road in the desert, and the Jeep was about to run out of gas. I thought sure we’d die.”
“Yeah, I hiked up that hill and looked in all directions. There were no roads, no sign of life. I tried to remain positive. And I sure didn’t want you to be upset—.” He almost added because you were pregnantbut stopped abruptly.
She nodded like she knew what he was thinking. “It’s funny now, but it was serious back then. It was so hot and dusty, and you climbed up that hill.” She paused. “Oh, George, my life turned out bad. I never loved Clint, but it keeps getting worse. You and I always had a spark, didn’t we?”
An orchestral rendition of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” played on the overhead speakers, and he felt all sappy, like a stupid, lovesick punk teenager. “Yes, we always had a spark.”
A mannequin in a three-piece suit in a window looked at him, its face sober as if in admonition, telling him not to be a sucker for her.
“Meet me,” she whispered, the smell of her perfume captivating him. “Meet me tomorrow. At six. Somewhere where no one will see us.”
It was like they were teenagers again, meeting in the park, leaving notes for each other, fucking in the backseat of her car. The blood rushed from his head, banishing rational thought, making him little more than an amoeba responding to an overpowering stimulus. The words came out of his mouth of their own volition. “There’s a place. Very private. Jean Paul’s.”
“I know where it is. I’ll be there at six.”
She turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Lazarus laughed as he laid the three guns out on the kitchen table of his love nest. Which one should Lemuel use to put a bullet in George’s head? The Ruger Standard was a strong contender. With its blued carbon-steel finish and wood grip, it was something he was proud to have in his arsenal. However, the Ruger MK II was equally impressive and accurate at a distance. But the Baretta 71 was excellent too. It was small and lightweight and could fit in a pants pocket. All three were cold and had never been fired during a crime so far as he knew.
Many guns had presented themselves to him over the years, but only these three had what it took to be finalists.
One and only one could be chosen. With Pano about to die, the time had come to make a decision.
Their barrels were smooth. He ran his fingers over each one, hoping to get some signal from Joey. Their connection had been strong all the years his twin brother was in prison. When Joey had killed the guard, Lazarus knew something terrible had happened. Even after Joey died—at the hands of George—the connection had not been broken. Lazarus still sensed his presence, particularly during crucial moments.
When he fondled the Baretta, he heard Joey’s voice.
Avenge my death, the spirit said.
Lazarus held the pistol aloft. “Is this the gun to use?”
Lazarus had long fantasized about torturing George. It would take days. George would beg for mercy, then beg for death, then finally, at the last moment, he would again beg for mercy.
That was not to be. A bullet to the brain would have to do.
“I will avenge your death, my brother! You can count on me.”
It was time to go to The Pink Stiletto, so he wiped all of them clean of fingerprints, wrapped them in their colorful oilcloths, and stored them in a cabinet over the sink. Constantly vigilant, he looked out the window down at the street. Nothing unusual. He shook the iron bars; they were secure. He went into the walk-in closet. A trapdoor led to a crawl space between his apartment and the one on the other side. He ran his fingers across the nails. Solid and secure. Then, he walked to the front door, which was reinforced with a metal plate, and looked through the peephole. No one in the hall. No one on the landing.
There were three locks. As quietly as possible, he undid each one and listened for any sound on the other side. Nothing. He looked through the peephole again. No one on the landing. He padded out and down the steps, surprisingly quiet for a man his size, and slid into his Caddy. When he reached The Pink Stiletto, people snapped to attention. He was Lazarus The Great. Everyone knew he came for a late lunch and to catch the first show. He had to look like a silly, lovesick old man. Which he was. Not lovesick or silly, but old. Not a twenty or thirty-year-old. Not even a forty or fifty-year. He had entered his sixties. He didn’t care that much about getting old or dying. All he wanted was vengeance.
Most strip clubs had sleazy hosts, nothing more than pimps too weak to fight for their girls. Lazarus insisted that his guys wear tuxedos. The one on duty escorted him to his table right in front of the stage. A waiter brought him his Scotch rocks and Greek salad as soon as he settled into his seat. Soon his moussaka would arrive. It had been the same for years. Chefs came and went; girls came and went. The food remained the same. Burgers and ham sandwiches for the customers; off-the-menu Greek plates for him and his friends. Employment depended on how good the moussaka was. His blood might not be Greek, but no one loved all things Greek more than he did.
One of the new girls gyrated to disco music, throwing all her clothes into the audience before sliding to her knees in front of Lazarus. He appreciated her efforts and slid a hundred-dollar bill into her G-string. The next dancer was a cowgirl with boots and a cowboy hat. She knew how to shake her butt, and that was also worth a hundred bucks.
The maître d marched to the microphone. An old burned-out junkie, he wheezed into the microphone as a waiter set the moussaka in front of Lazarus.
“And now, it’s time for Darla. You all know her. No one shakes it like her. She is—” He checked his notes. “—unrivaled. This is her new routine. We are debuting it this afternoon for all our loyal afternoon customers. Come back tonight for a repeat.”
The house lights dimmed, and a single spot focused on the stage door. She came out dressed as a Greek goddess, all wrapped up in white robes with her hair curled up on top of her head under a gold crown. She had told Lazarus that her outfit would be a big surprise, having said only that it was something he would love, and boy, it sure was.
Arms outstretched, she twirled around on high heels, the spotlight following her as Lazarus bit into the creamy goodness of the eggplant and noodle. She looked down at him, and he raised his glass to her.
The music started. It was “Misirlou,” the fast-paced song in a belly-dance style, and she threw her robe into the audience to reveal a sheer white robe underneath. Dancing in time to the music, she unpinned her hair, and shook out her long, dark, Greek-looking curls. The crowd went wild as she and the curls spun around.
Lazarus smiled big because people were expecting him to get all excited. All he could think about was the Beretta pressed against George’s skull. The job had to be done quickly. That was why Joey chose the Baretta. “Thank you, Joey,” he said under his breath. “Thank you for showing me what has to be done.”
The music climaxed as Darla stripped down to a G-string. The crown, which must have all kinds of bobby pins on it, stayed in place. Boy, was she a marvel. Thin waist, big tits. The best body that money could buy. And that hair flowing around. But the best thing about her was that she was a loudmouth. She blabbed every detail about their sex life. Now that Lazarus could finally get it up again, he wanted everyone to believe that sex was the only thing on his mind. No one would suspect what he was planning.
As her tits rotated in the same direction like propeller blades, he rose to his feet to clap. He wasn’t looking forward to the sex. With the Scotch and moussaka in his stomach, he wanted a nap. But he had to take her back to his love nest. People had to think that he was smitten.
When she finished, he sat to finish the last creamy bites of his meal in peace, but wouldn’t you know it, Paul, his henchman, came into the Stiletto.
Had to be bad news.
He was dressed in cowboy boots and jeans like he always did since he’d first gone to Texas to spy on George. Lazarus had been born German but tried endlessly to be Greek; Paul had been born Greek and tried to be the Marlboro Man.
“Pano called me,” Paul said, talking low, glancing left and right. “Said he tried to reach you. He’s not feeling well. He may not go to church tomorrow.”
That was definitely bad news. The old fart was near the end, but no one knew besides Lazarus. Not even Pano knew. Lazarus had bribed his doctor to tell him he had years ahead of him. Lazarus had hoped to wait until after the Panayías holiday to kill George, but it was time to strike. “If Pano misses any church services, George may get suspicious. I’m going to tell Lemuel to kill him right away.”
“Have you chosen a gun? Do you want me to drive it down tonight?”
Lazarus shook his head. “No, if George doesn’t see you at Panayías, he might get suspicious about that too. Your spies are watching George around the clock, right?”
“Yes. Round the clock.”
After Paul left, Lazarus finished his moussaka. Between bites, he whispered to his brother. Joey, I know you wanted me to kill George with the Baretta. But if we get a chance to get him beforehand, we’ll have to do that. I hope you understand.
He thought of the words from the Trisagion for the dead and clasped his hands together in prayer.
O Lord, give rest in a place of light, in a place of green pasture, in a place of refreshment, from where pain and sorrow and mourning have fled away.
He noticed the guy with one hand at a corner table. He was a regular customer. He looked Greek. Lazarus had seen him in church even though he’d never talked to him. What was the deal with him? He was about to go talk to him when Darla tugged at him.
“I’m ready,” she said. She wore a blouse cut way low to show her cleavage. With the food in his stomach, he was so drowsy, but he had to pretend he couldn’t wait to take her back to his love nest. He pulled her close, and they walked out with everyone staring.
The guy with one hand was gone. Lazarus didn’t like it.