Rocco had spent a lot of time in the dingy warehouse on the lake. He had done a lot of work here – messy work that few other people had the stomach for, even in these dangerous times.
He put down the newspaper, which was a little over his head, and picked up a deck of cards to play solitaire. This, too, was above his abilities, but it was better than pure boredom as he waited for the phone to ring.
“Red seven on the … red nine? No, that’s not right.”
As Rocco puzzled over the intricacies of the game, Pentz sat quietly in his chair and said nothing.
“Black queen on … nothin’. I got nowhere to put it.” He set the rest of the deck back on the desk. “The hell with it.” He looked at Pentz. “You sure haven’t had much to say.”
Pentz proved Rocco right.
“Most guys, they sit there and tell me about their families, the wife and the little kiddoes that need a daddy. They tell me it’s not their fault, that they can explain.” He paused, waiting. “They offer me lotsa money if I’ll just be a pal.”
Pentz offered Rocco neither money nor a single syllable.
“One guy, he says to me, ‘Hey, let’s do this fair. Just you an’ me. Winner take all. A fair fight.’ Like anybody could beat me up.” He flexed an impressive bicep; Rocco had been given a prizefighter’s body to make up for his lack of brains. “Then some of ’em, heh-heh, some of ’em try tippin’ the chair over an’ break it while I’m off to the can. Never breaks, though. I just leave ’em onna floor. Don’t matter to me none.”
Rocco and Pentz could both hear a rat scurrying through some boxes on the far side of the warehouse.
“Some of ’em say, ‘Rocco, you do this an’ you’ll be a murderer. You can’t live with that, now, can you?’ Like I haven’t been doing this for the Boss for six or seven years now.” He paused to think. “An’ whenever I needed to before that.”
The warehouse’s cat found the rat, and after a brief flurry all was quiet again.
“You just sit there all quiet-like, though. You don’t even sweat.” His eyes narrowed, and he stood up and walked over to Pentz, who was tied hand and foot to the chair. “You do unnerstand what’s gonna happen when that phone makes noise, don’tcha? Soon as the Boss gets back from dancin’ with whoever his girl is tonight?”
Pentz laughed; it was a soft snort of air through his nostrils, and his eyelids closed halfway for a second. Rocco shook his head and walked away.
“You got to be the coolest son of a gun I ever had in here. Ain’t never had no one like you in here before.”
Rocco paced awhile, occasionally stopping to stare at Pentz. Pentz returned the look without interest; he regarded Rocco exactly as he had the boxes and the hand truck that were in his field of vision.
“Y’know, what I’m gonna do to you is gonna be permanent, mister. Most people come here have some feelings about that. But not you! You just act like you’re waitin’ for a bus or somethin’. Geez, I hope the Boss calls soon.”
Pentz returned his gaze to the hand truck.
Rocco grumbled and muttered to himself. He leaned against the back of his own chair and shook his head for a moment.
“Guys come in here, they beg me for mercy, beg me and Jesus together. I don’t get paid for mercy, and Jesus don’t come to this city.” He turned around to face Pentz again. “You’re gettin’ on my nerves over there. Like you’re that Egyptian Sphincter or whatever they got in that desert that don’t talk.” He sat heavily in his chair and tried to corral his nervous energy within him. He hunched his shoulders and stared daggers at Pentz. “How is it you don’t give a damn you’re gonna die?” he yelled. “Everybody gives a damn about that. People care about two things.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “They care about money, and they care about dyin’. So how is it you’re sittin’ there like you don’t care about dyin’?”
Pentz troubled himself to look at Rocco, but it was with the same poker face he had worn all evening. It made Rocco pound a beefy fist on the desk. “I care about killin’ you, so why don’t you care about dyin’?”
At that moment, the warehouse echoed with the ringing of the telephone. Pentz was made of sterner stuff than to jump at the sound; Rocco didn’t have enough sense to be startled by anything.
“ ’Bout time,” Rocco said. He picked up the candlestick and lifted the receiver. “Yeah? Yeah, hi, Boss. Yeah, I got him on ice here.” Rocco listened a moment. “Okay, Boss. Right away.” He hung the receiver in its cradle and set the telephone on the edge of the desk. He looked at Pentz and then opened the middle desk drawer, removing a long knife.
He walked toward Pentz and frowned deeply when Pentz betrayed no sign of concern. Rocco kept walking and ended up behind Pentz’ chair. He bent down and started sawing at the ropes that held Pentz in place.
“Gotta do it this way,” Rocco said. “Can’t untie my own knots. They stay tied, even after I cut ’em.” He grunted a few times. “Mickey and Tommy’ll be here in a little bit. They’ll take you home. Boss says it’s all a mix-up and he’s sorry for the inconvenientness and he’ll square it with you tomorrow. Don’t matter to me as long as you take all your quiet and go.”
At length, Pentz stood carefully as the blood began to flow freely through his limbs again. In the distance, a door banged open and shut, and the promised Mickey and Tommy drew near.
“Mr. Pentz,” Mickey said, “the Boss asked us to take you home. There’s some eats and some champagne in the car for you.”
Pentz nodded and walked toward the exit. He stopped at the desk, though, and looked at Rocco’s abandoned solitaire game. He drew the next card.
“Black nine … on the red ten.” He lay the card in place slowly so that Rocco could follow the sequence of events. “Nice chatting with you, Rocco.”
Pentz led Mickey and Tommy to the door.
Rocco stood in place as they left and did not move until well after the door had slammed shut again.
He looked at the cards on the desk.
“Black nine on the red ten,” he said. “Maybe all he cares about is solitaire.”
Rocco sat down and absently transferred the knife to his left hand. He drew the next card and tried to discern where to place it.