Excerpts from “A Better Goodbye”

MEET THE MAIN CHARACTERS OF A BETTER GOODBYE

NICK PAFKO

He was a promising young middleweight when he killed an opponent in the ring and saw his own life go off the rails. Now it’s 2003, fourteen years later, and he’s doing whatever he can to keep body and soul together. Today he’s filling in for a friend who drives a beer truck, a job that’s simple until it isn’t.

By the time Nick found his last stop, he was running late and praying to God he was done with pissed-off store managers and postage-stamp-sized parking lots. Paisano Groceries sat next to a locksmith that told the world where it was with a large yellow sign shaped like a key. The store’s windows were papered with hand-drawn signs for brands of soda that supermarket chains couldn’t be troubled to carry – Big Red, Nehi Peach, Root 66 Root Beer. There was a beat-up Chrysler Fifth Avenue, its color a cross between dirt and Bondo, parked across the two handicapped spaces in front of the store’s double doors. Nick eased in beside it, and by the time he had walked to the front of the truck, a small, round man wearing a grocer’s apron was coming out to greet him.

“Only ten cases of regular today,” the round man said. “Nights are too cold for my beer drinkers, I guess.”

“Ten,” Nick said. “You got it.”

“But still five Light.”

“Right.” When Nick saw the round man looking at him, puzzled, he said, “Coyle’s taking some personal time.”

“Oh, okay. I wasn’t sure what to think. You’re not wearing a Budweiser shirt. I’m Eddie.”

“Nick.”

After they shook hands, Eddie told Nick the girl at the register would have cash waiting for him and went back inside. As Nick wheeled in his first dolly load, he heard Eddie talking soda pop with a customer. Something from North Carolina called Cheerwine. “I don’t know what it is about the South – they like high carbonation. Sometimes the bottles just explode. I come in some mornings and there’s glass on the floor and soda all over the place.” Eddie shook his head. “The carbonation.”

Nick wouldn’t have minded staying a while, maybe have a sandwich from the deli counter and wash it down with one of Eddie’s recommendations. But ten minutes later he was pushing the last cases of empties out the door. He had the envelope with the cash in his hip pocket. He didn’t bother counting it.

The parking lot rang with the laughter and shouts of three Hispanic kids who were buzzing around the truck. The oldest of them was no more than twelve. He was riding a peewee bike with oversized gooseneck handlebars, and his two buddies were laughing and chasing after him, so naked in their yearning for the bike that Nick felt it in his gut.

“How you guys doing?” he said.

The oldest kid skidded to a stop by the rear of the truck. “Give me a beer,” he said. His buddies snickered, watching their leader with something approaching reverence.

“A beer?” Nick took the first case of empties off the dolly and held it as he looked at the kid with a smile. “What do you want with a beer?”

“Drink it. What else?”

The kid smirked while his buddies erupted in laughter.

“I better see your ID first,” Nick said.

“Left it at home,” the kid said. “Come on, man, just one – ” Then his eyes got wide. His buddies’ eyes did, too. “Shit,” he said, and spun away on his bike, pedaling furiously as his buddies scrambled to catch up with him.

Nick was watching them disappear behind the truck when he heard a voice at his back: “Your money, man, and no fockin’ around.”

“Just let me put the bottles down,” Nick said.

“Nice and easy or I’ll kill your ass.”

Nick lowered the case to the ground and turned around slowly. It was the gangbanger he’d seen when he was pulling in behind the bowling alley, still in black with his hood up and that life-is-cheap look on his face. The only accessory he had added was the pistol he was pointing at Nick, holding it flat instead of up and down, like he’d learned everything he knew about guns in the movies.

“You’ll kill me?” Nick said, more curious than afraid.

“Goddamn right I will.” The banger was coming toward Nick, not too fast, not too slow, every move a message that he had done this before.

“What if I told you I don’t care?” Nick said.

JENNY YEE

She’s going by Suki when we meet her. No one who does sensual massage uses her real name. In other ways, though, she’s different than most of the girls. They waste money on shoes, drugs and useless boyfriends. Jenny AKA Suki saves hers for college. But that doesn’t mean she can’t go for a drive with her favorite client in his ragtop Rolls Royce.

They’d been hitting green lights all the way and the traffic wasn’t as thick as it usually was, all in all a perfect afternoon. Nothing for Suki to do but ride the good feeling wherever it took her.

Then Barry said, “Shit.”

She had only heard him swear a time or two before. When she looked over, his smile was gone and he was leaning on the button for the convertible top. The convertible top. That was the reason for his mood swing. It was sticking straight up as they rolled past Tower Records, a block from Van Nuys Boulevard. They were supposed to turn there and head up to Mulholland. But right now Mulholland was the farthest thing from Barry’s mind.

“Goddammit,” he said.

Lucinda Williams was still singing [on the CD player], but the only sound that registered on Suki was a low, grinding noise. When she looked around, she saw other drivers staring and two Asian guys in a jacked-up Honda Civic pointing at her and laughing, like this was what she got for hanging out with a rice chaser old enough to be her father. Her first impulse was to flip them off.

Then Barry said “shit” one more time, and she turned her attention back to him. “What should we do?” she asked.

He had both hands on the wheel now and he was moving into the right lane, hunting for a parking place. He didn’t look at her when he said, “You should get me a brain transplant.”

“No, don’t say that.”

“I was fucking stupid enough to try putting it down when we were moving. Should have parked.”

“It’ll be all right.”

“Not if I fucked up the goddamn car.”

He hit the brake when he saw a Lincoln Navigator pulling out of a parking space. But it stopped halfway onto the street because the woman behind the wheel was busy yakking on her cell phone. “Fucking bitch,” he said.

Suki flinched. She didn’t like the side of Barry that was emerging any more than Barry liked sitting here knowing that everybody who saw his Rolls’s convertible top waving in the breeze thought he was a rich idiot. She would have thought the same thing if she’d been driving down the street. And she had to stifle a giggle when she realized she couldn’t wait to tell someone about what had happened. Not Contessa, but maybe Brooke. No, not Brooke either, because she’d turn around and tell Contessa. Then they’d both diss Barry the way they dissed most clients, and Suki felt too protective of him for that. But she had to find someone. This was just too good, you know?

* * *

Stepping into the apartment, she didn’t hear anything except the icemaker in the fridge. There was no sign of Contessa and Brooke – they were probably still in session. She walked toward the living room and saw that the coffee table’s glass top had been knocked sideways. A closer look told her it was cracked. One of the cushions had been had been pulled away from the sofa, too. Suki, starting to feel strange, off-balance, moved to straighten things up the way she always did, and almost stepped on one of the phones. It was lying on the floor, smashed, as though someone had jumped on it.

She glanced around the room, the sun sinking in the west, its light streaming through the vertical blinds. There was a dark slash on one of the walls that hadn’t been there when she left. Below it lay what she guessed had put it there: the other phone, now cracked and useless.

Suki’s breath caught in her chest. The cops must have busted Contessa and Brooke. Alarms were going off in her head as she wondered if there had been anything with her name on it lying around. And were the cops waiting for her to come back? This was all new to her. The only other time she’d thought she was going to get busted, she was working in a musician’s guesthouse on Beverly Glen and another masseuse got all cocaine paranoid and started playing head games. Suki had forgotten her purse in her rush to get out of there, and when she went back to get it she was so scared she almost wet herself. That wouldn’t happen now.

Purse in hand, she was starting to leave when she heard something besides the fridge and the hum of traffic out on Sepulveda. Crying, maybe. Or a moan. Wait, there it was again, coming from behind the master bedroom’s closed door: “Motherfuckers.” Definitely Contessa. But she didn’t sound nasty, the way she usually did. There were tears in her voice. And pain.

Suki reached for the doorknob as if it were a coiled snake. When she finally made herself turn it, she opened the door an inch at a time. Six inches in, she was greeted by a scream and Brooke shouting, “No, go away! Leave us alone!”

“What are you talking about?” Suki said.

Then she stepped inside and saw for herself.

SCOTT CRANDALL

It’s not as though he doesn’t have enough problems already. He’s turning to fat, his B-list acting career has stalled out, and the women who work for him in his high-rise massage parlor are a non-stop headache. Now he’s trying to decide what to do about a brutal pair of robbers who are hopscotching across L.A., terrorizing its soiled angels.

Scott skimmed the responses to Concernedcitizen’s post – lots of outrage and indignation from other hobbyists, nothing from any girls. But he knew that in the provider community the drums were already beating. Hookers and hand whores read Tailfeathers devoutly, pissing about clients whose reviews made them sound like sluts and moaning about girls who claimed they were twenty-two when they wouldn’t see thirty-five again. He’d heard that providers had their own website, too, talking shop and rating both clients and bosses. That was more bitching than he could handle.

He caught enough shit every day from his own girls. There were seven of them now – the numbers seemed to go up or down every few weeks – and he knew they were primed to freak out at the bad news Concernedcitizen had passed along. At times like this, rampant fear was as much a part of the business as eye shadow.

When Scott had set up his first operation three years before, there had been a little accountant-looking dude who would take masseuses up on their offer of a shower and come out of the bathroom waving a gun and demanding all their money. The next year it had been a carpenter who preyed on skinny blondes, trussing them up, throwing them in the back of his van, and driving out to Palmdale to go animal on them. The carpenter wound up killing himself, although there was still talk that one of his victims’ boyfriends had pulled the trigger. As for the accountant, who knew? He had vanished into the ether that seemed to consume most of the crazies who declared open season on girls who, when you got right down to it, were all but defenseless.

Not that the girls didn’t try to do something. Scott knew that some of them hugged first-time clients coming through the door, thinking they could feel hidden weapons. There were probably also girls who carried Mace or even a small pistol – if wide-load pro football players could pack, why not hundred-and-five-pound hand-job artists? But Scott didn’t want to think about a gun in the hands of some of the women he’d employed. Too many of them were so scary stupid that they’d wind up shooting the wrong person, and the wrong person might be him.

Scott’s first impulse with the latest maniacs to descend on the business had been to call them the Love ’Em and Leave ’Em Bandits, but his girls didn’t laugh, they just became more skittish than ever. Now it was clear that the only way he’d be able to stop them from getting any crazier was to hire security. He’d done it before, but that didn’t mean he liked it or anything he had heard about it. There were stories of off-duty LAPD providing muscle for a girlfriend in the business, but that could have been bullshit. What your average massage operation got for security was several cuts below the knuckle draggers who worked as rent-a-cops at shopping malls and car shows. The best Scott had come across were an apartment manager’s kid brother, a recovering car salesman with a speech impediment, and a guy in one of his acting classes who wanted to be a professional wrestler.

His head swimming at having to choose from a pool of morons, Scott lit another smoke off his old one, flipped open his cell, and dialed. One ring later, he heard the voice he was counting on to reassure him that things would be cool.

ONUS DuPREE JR.

He was born evil. His own mother said so. There has never been any changing him. Crime is his calling whether he is stealing money or spilling blood. On a good night, he’ll do both. Keep that in mind as he stalks a drug dealer who makes high-end house calls.

The colonial’s porch light was on, and DuPree could see the front door open and George step inside the way he’d done the other times DuPree had followed him to the Palisades. He’d stay four minutes, five tops, just long enough to conduct business.

DuPree used the time to ease his Beemer up two houses without turning on its lights. Then he snugged up his leather driving gloves and picked his Luxeon Hand Torch off the passenger seat, $89.95 worth of flashlight straight off the Internet, approved by SWAT teams and the military, now on the verge of being used in a criminal endeavor. He made sure the interior light was off before he opened the door and eased onto the street. He closed the door softly, then checked the nine-millimeter Glock tucked in the back of his pants and stepped to the other side of his car. If anyone should come along and ask – a cop, for instance – he had his big-assed flashlight out so he could say he was checking a tire that was making some bad noises.

A minute later, as the porch light went off behind him, George came back down the walk without the grocery bag he had taken in. He was humming a tune that DuPree couldn’t put a name on. George unlocked his MDX by remote, and when he started to open the door, DuPree made his move, hurrying across the street toward his target, flashlight in his left hand and raised to shoulder height.

“Yo, Teddy,” he said.

George grunted in surprise and turned around just as DuPree clicked on the flashlight, aiming the beam at its eyes. George threw up his left arm to block the glare.

“Who is it?” he asked, having no success whatsoever at keeping the uncertainty out of his voice.

“It’s me, man.”

“Who?”

DuPree, still advancing, could see George running through the file of black male voices in his memory bank, trying to find one that belonged in a neighborhood full of rich motherfuckers. That ruled out most of the musicians he had played with, drunk with, maybe even sold drugs to.

“Shit, get that fucking light out of my eyes so I can see you, dude.”

Just as George came to the realization that he had never seen the black guy who was almost on top of him, DuPree said, “Yeah, sure.”

And he turned off the flashlight and clubbed George over the head with it, making a noise that sounded like a drum he had heard once in a reggae band.

George’s knees buckled and he grabbed his open door to stay upright. DuPree skull-thumped him again, hard enough to draw blood and send the batteries flying out of the flashlight. George lost his grip on the door and did a face plant on the street.

DuPree kneeled and turned him over. Motherfucker had a bloody nose now, to go along with that gash on his coconut. DuPree dug through George’s pants pockets, pulling them all inside out. His first discovery was a glassine bag containing cocaine, no shake, all rock, a little something to help him celebrate later. Then he moved on to George’s faded Doobie Brothers tour jacket, wondering who the fuck the Doobie Brothers were until he unzipped an inside pocket and pulled out the night’s grand prize. It was a wad of bills the size of DuPree’s fist, and DuPree had a big fist.

The clock in his head told him to wait on counting the money. He straightened up and climbed behind the wheel of George’s MDX, checking everywhere he could think of for more to steal. The glove compartment contributed a vial of pills and there was another, smaller roll of bills under the passenger seat. The only other thing of interest he found was a CD with “Britney Demo” written on it with a girlish star over the “i.” Britney Spears? What self-respecting musician would have anything to do with her? Was George doing session work? Auditioning for her band? He couldn’t be a fan, could he? All that cracker bitch was good for was bending over, and DuPree was positive he’d had better white pussy at Uni High, those little rich girls giving it up so nice for the football hero.

He pulled the CD from its diamond case and snapped it in half. Then he got out of the MDX, took a look at George on the ground, blood still oozing from his head and nose, and kicked the motherfucker in the ribs hard enough to hear one of them breaking. Then he kicked him again, trying for another. Fuck Britney Spears.

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